By JENNIFER K. BAUERIn 1980, 20 volcanoes around the globe spewed ash and lava but none got more attention than Mount St. Helens in Washington state.
When it comes to wild, violent eruptions, most people think it couldn’t happen here, said geologist Richard Waitt. “Even amongst geologists there’s a little bit of this; you’re sort of in denial.”
In the two months leading up to the May 18, 1980, eruption, 10,000 earthquakes shook Mount St. Helens. Waitt was part of a team monitoring the buildup. No one could have predicted what happened, he said — the Earth’s largest terrestrial landslide and a hot surge that killed dozens of people and nearly all other life in 234 square miles of forest.
As a field geologist Waitt has studied volcanoes around the Pacific Northwest. While ash deposits can suggest a chain of events, the populated Mount St. Helens area offered more: witnesses and photos. Waitt, who is based in Vancouver, Wash., with the U.S. Geological Survey, realized that those who had survived in the death zone experienced things scientists could only guess. He spent three decades seeking out witnesses. His book “In the Path of Destruction,” (Washington State University Press, 416 pages) pairs their accounts with the science of the eruption.
“Suddenly I could see nothing. I’d been knocked down and my hard hat blown off. It got hot right away, then scorching hot and impossible to breathe. The air had no oxygen, like being trapped underwater. … I was being cremated, the pain unbearable.” (Page 164)
In his book Waitt writes that according to a Klickitat tribal legend recorded in 1853, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens, its neighbor 60 miles southeast, were a man and wife who quarrelled and “threw fire at one another.”
As the earthquakes increased in number in 1980, scientists posited that it could be the prelude to an eruption but no one was sure.
When people imagine a volcano erupting they usually think of an exploding peak. Waitt said, calling this “garden variety explosive vulcanism.”
Mount St. Helens surprised scientists in two ways, he said. First, it “decapitated itself through a landslide,” displacing a lake and opening the door for event No. 2, a ground-hugging hot surge that devastated the landscape for miles outside the boundaries officials had considered safe. It stayed low to the ground, knocking down trees, sucking up oxygen, rising up the sides of valleys then descending. It was so hot one man described hearing the sap boil in the trees. That’s a detail a scientist couldn’t glean from ash, Waitt said.
“There’s innumerable things like that in these accounts that tell small details that happened that make you understand the process,” he said.
“The cloud was coming fast, full of lightning, much too big to frame in one shot. ‘We’re gonna die!’ I cried.” (Page 157)
A few weeks after Mount St. Helens erupted, Waitt read a story on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about a couple who had barely out run a hot ash cloud in their car. Through the reporter, Waitt got in touch with the couple to interview them himself.
“Just shortly into the interview I realized, if these people are telling the truth, there is no way to know some of the things they learned by outrunning the eruption,” Waitt said. “It opened up the world of what these people might have to say.”
He sought out loggers, campers, airline pilots, police officers and others. Many were reluctant to talk at first. Some had lost friends or relatives in the eruption. One man waited eight and a half years before agreeing to an interview. A meticulous scientist, he carefully compared their statements to those of others and to collected data. If there were discrepancies he returned for more information.
“The stories are as straight as they can possibly be. It took a lot of work on the part of the witnesses as it did of me,” said Waitt, who calls the eruption 35 years ago, “a once in a lifetime event.”