Remembering Mt. St. Helens 35 Years Later

May 18th, 1980, 8:32am. 35 years ago. I was ten years old. It was a Sunday morning and my mom, sister and I were just about to leave the house for church. My other sister was off at college and my dad was down in Oregon for his job in the Air Force.

We were literally just about to go out the door when we heard a muffled BOOM.

“Oh,” my mom said. “They’re dynamiting on Buck Mountain.”

“On a Sunday?” my sister and I responded. “No. That’s not dynamite. That’s Mt. St. Helens.”

“No,” Mom disagreed. “We couldn’t hear that from here.”

But we could, and we did.

We got into our beat up Station Wagon and turned on the radio. Sure enough. A mountain had blown up. But it wasn’t from dynamite. And it wasn’t little Buck Mountain that rose behind our house. It was Mt. St. Helens, 300 miles away, and the skyline of Washington State would never look the same again.

Dad, down in Portland at the USAF Air Rescue Reserve squadron of which he was a part for many years, showed up at the mountain about 24 hours later in their search and rescue helicopters. They couldn’t get there safely any sooner. Even then they were risking their lives to search for the people who had been reported as missing on the mountain.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks they rescued survivors, located the dead, and witnessed something which they had hoped to never see. It was fascinating, yes, but it was horrifying as well.

Back on the island, I showed up that Sunday afternoon for rehearsal for my 4th grade play, Sleeping Beauty. (I was Maleficent, thank you very much.) I remember our teacher, Mrs. Brown, telling us what to do in case of an earthquake. No one knew what to expect. Would the mountain blow again? Would it trigger earthquakes or tsunamis?

As it turned out, we were fine. No quakes, no tidal waves, not even any ash came our way, as it all blew in a different direction, eventually making it’s way around the entire globe.

Dad, a semi-professional photographer, took hundreds of photographs of the devastation, quite a few of which hang in the Mt. St. Helens Interpretive Center located on the foothills of the mountain today.

It makes my heart ache to compare those photographs with a different photograph, hand-tinted, taken some 30 years prior to the explosion. It’s shows my mom, about 10 years old, with her sister and my grandpa in a meadow of wildflowers on Mt. St. Helens. The peak of the mountain rises in the background.

Now that peak doesn’t exist any more, and those little girls are 70 some years old. New wildflowers have filled in much of the ugly devastation, though nature can never replace the top of the mountain itself.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the explosion and my dad’s rescue missions, please tune in to my weekly radio show, “Everyday Epiphanies”, which airs every Sunday morning at 9:30am on KWOA, AM730. I’ll be talking specifically about St. Helens on the 24th, but I’m on every week! “See” you there!

4 Responses

  1. Pat Hanson

    My daughters and I were moving to Seattle shortly after the May 1980 eruption. We stopped to gather ash (which I still have) from the side of I90 somewhere east of Ellensburg When the school sent home a form asking me to designate where I would like my daughters to go in the event of another eruption I felt Minnesota (where we’re from) was the proper answer.

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