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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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40 Years Ago: A look back at a natural disaster in the making

On May 8, 1980, Mount St. Helens spewed smoke and ash for the first time in weeks.
On May 8, 1980, Mount St. Helens spewed smoke and ash for the first time in weeks.

The small earthquakes began on March 15, 1980. The first headlines appeared a week later when an earthquake registering 4.1 on the Richter scale was recorded at Mount St. Helens on March 20. On March 27, the mountain started belching steam, and scientists tasked with monitoring the volcanoes of the Cascade Mountains knew something was brewing.

This spring, Spokane historian and Spokesman-Review contributor Jim Kershner has been recapping the developments at Mount St. Helens on Sundays in his history column. Here we’ve tied them all together, giving readers an overview of the birth of an eruption.


The headline in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on March 22, 1980, didn’t seem too alarming: “Mount St. Helens Area is Rattled.”

An earthquake registering 4.1 on the Richter scale shook the seemingly inactive volcano, but officials downplayed the significance, noting that there were no reports of damage and “earthquakes are common in that area.”

Yet the tremors continued the next few days. On March 24, the Chronicle ran a headline that asked, “Mount St. Helens to Spout?” A University of Washington seismologist answered that question with a “maybe.”

“We’ve had an increase in the number of earthquakes near the mountain and that’s what one might expect if it’s going to erupt,” said the seismologist. “But that doesn’t mean it will. You won’t know for sure until it does, if it does.”

The Spokesman-Review ran a comical headline on March 27, 1980 – “Skiing Good? – Lava-ly!” – citing a tongue-in-cheek ski report that said skiing on the mountain was “very hot” and skiers should “dress in asbestos.” (There was no ski resort on the mountain.)

The laughter vanished later that day when Mount St. Helens began to rumble in earnest. The Spokesman-Review ran a front page story on March 28 by reporter Robert L. Rose. His lead sentence has become legendary in local journalism circles.

“Mount St. Helens, a lady with a 123-year-old tummyache, erupted with a gigantic volcanic burp Thursday, a sound like a sonic boom heard 45 miles away.”

That certainly caught everyone’s attention. The rest of the story sounded some ominous notes.

“There was no sign of molten lava, but the eruption was monitored by scientists who worried that heat and jolting motion could set off mudslides and floods that could endanger three nearby dams and the whole valley,” wrote Rose.

The Spokesman-Review sent a photographer and reporter to circle the mountain in a Cessna, and an inside page was devoted entirely to Mount St. Helens news. People in communities near the mountain were “sleeping with one eye open.” Gov. Dixy Lee Ray embarked on an aerial inspection and declared it “quite a thrill.” A Spokane preacher called it “a revelation of God’s will.”

Washington State Gov. Dixy Lee Ray is swamped by reporters after taking a flight with the National Guard over the devastation left by the eruption of Mount St. Helens May 18, 1980. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Gov. Dixy Lee Ray is swamped by reporters after taking a flight with the National Guard over the devastation left by the eruption of Mount St. Helens May 18, 1980. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

On March 29, 1980, The Spokesman-Review’s front page photo showed Mount St. Helens’ pristine white cone – and a plume of steam and ash coming out the top.

The accompanying story noted that new eruptions were producing gases, steam and ash clouds that rose to 17,000 feet. Chunks of rock, ripped from the old volcano vent, “exploded 100 to 200 feet in the air.”

This was alarming, but apparently it was also “exciting.”

“This is the first real volcanic activity in the Cascade Range that can be studied with modern instruments, so I think everybody is terribly excited about what is going on,” said Gov. Ray.

She also said “we do have to keep in mind that there is a potential for a great deal of destruction.”

The next day, The Spokesman-Review attempted to reassure Spokane residents by noting the painfully obvious: Mount Spokane is not a volcano!

A scientist said the chances of volcanic activity on Mount Spokane were “zip and next to zip.” And that other mountain was 240 miles away!

The next day Mount St. Helens rained some ash on Portland, but none on Spokane because there was no southwesterly wind. The day after that, Mount St. Helens had fewer eruptions – but slightly bigger ones.

By April 3, the mountain exhibited its most alarming sign yet – a harmonic tremor, indicating molten magma was moving up into the volcano. The Spokesman-Review’s headline was “Mountain Goes Wild!” and scientists were now warning of a potential huge blast.

On April 4, Gov. Ray declared a state of emergency in the area around the volcano. The paper ran a story warning people to stay indoors if a heavy fall of ash were to occur.

On April 5, 1980, The Spokesman-Review’s front page ran this headline: “It’s Shaking and Baking.”

Mount St. Helens was showing “her most vital seismic signs yet,” wrote reporter John Kafentzis, with several powerful earthquakes and harmonic tremors.

The mountain was even tossing up “ice bombs” – frozen projectiles up to 20 feet long.

Kafentzis, stationed near Vancouver, reported the next day that the mountain had quieted down somewhat.

Washington State Patrol troopers were having a hard time keeping sightseers away from the mountain. About 60 National Guard troops were called in to relieve the troopers on the roadblocks.

Some good news: Dinky the cat, who streaked up a fir tree when the mountain first rumbled, had been rescued after eight days by a tree-climbing forester.

On April 8, 1980, the paper reported that the mountain was still “perking away like a car idling.” On April 9, scientists expressed the hope that the chances for a full-scale eruption were lessening.

The volcano had dominated the news for weeks, but now it had moved off the front page.

Oddly, some people were disappointed. The Spokesman-Review ran a guest editorial from the Oregonian that expressed the “secret hope that Mount St. Helens will put on a good show … a respectable eruption that will cause the world to admire one of the youngest of all of the volcanic sisters.”

This seems spectacularly misguided in retrospect, but the Oregonian did admit that it was not in favor of a “big China Syndrome core meltdown.”

Mount St. Helens was relegated to page 22 of The Spokesman-Review on April 12, 1980, after weeks of dominating the front page.

This reflected a diminution of activity – or at least, what appeared to be a diminution. Scientists noted only a few minor eruptions and “slight” earthquakes, and no harmonic tremors.

A false sense of security was building. The next day, the headline read, “Volcano Show Draws a Crowd.”

Tourists “flocked to Mount St. Helens on the first clear, spring weekend day” since Mount St. Helens began acting up in March.

“The volcano watchers gathered at viewing points along Interstate 5,” the Associated Press reported.

A number of people rented small planes at the Kelso, Washington, airport to get even closer.

This reached an apex on April 14, when the Associated Press reported that two mountain climbers were seen “inching their way to the top of the 9,677-foot peak.” Several other climbers had been seen on the mountain as well. Two television news helicopters actually landed on the crest of the mountain.

This was clearly dangerous – and not just in retrospect. The next day the paper noted that people entering the area were violating federal law and could be prosecuted.

However, the mountain remained relatively quiet through April 18, leading people to think that the worst was over. A grocery store in Toutle, Washington, was already selling T-shirts reading “Survivor – Eruption Mount St. Helens 1980.”

Mount St. Helens had been relatively quiet for a week, but on April 19, 1980, scientists issued a warning.

They had noticed “great amounts of ground shaking and avalanching caused by local earthquakes.” They also saw evidence that heat was causing the snow and ice to melt faster than usual.

They announced that they were putting additional monitors on the north side of the mountain to “assess the hazard it presents to the Spirit Lake area and the North Toutle River drainage.”

On April 23, a government scientist said “sharp, successive earthquakes and frequent explosions” should be a sign to area cabin owners to “leave the uneasy peak.” The elderly owner of a lodge at Spirit Lake, Harry Truman, still stubbornly refused to evacuate.

Some people were heeding the omens. A leader of the Puyallup Tribe said he had moved his family away from the Puyallup-Tacoma area to Spokane. The reason: “You ignore visions to your own detriment. … The mountain spoke.”

However, most people still regarded the mountain as an entertaining sideshow. On April 24, syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer wrote that she was on a commercial flight out of Sea-Tac Airport, when the pilot announced that he was avoiding Mount St. Helens as a precaution. The passengers’ reaction? They were “genuinely disappointed.”

On April 25, 1980, The Spokesman-Review reported an alarming development. A bulge on the north side of the mountain’s crater was growing. It was now 250 feet high. Scientists were worried that it could cause a landslide, which could reach as far as the north fork of the Toutle River and possibly raise the level of Spirit Lake.

In fact, this bulge was a portent of something far more catastrophic.

Mount St. Helens still was rumbling on April 26, 1980, but scientists had no idea what it might portend.

“Ground tilt has been recorded, but doesn’t conclusively show the volcano is either expanding or contracting,” reported the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Harry Truman (no relation to the former president) was becoming an international celebrity for refusing to evacuate from his Spirit Lake lodge at the base of the mountain. He had been warned repeatedly that he was in danger, but the most he agreed to do was shift his bed to the basement “because of the near constant shaking.”

Now, people all over world were writing to him with words of support. He even received three proposals of marriage.

“Everybody wants a piece of old Truman now,” said Harry, who admitted to being somewhat over 80 years old.

He particularly liked the letters written by kids, even though many urged him to leave. One letter read, “Only one person (in our class) thinks you should stay, but he’s strange anyway.”

By April 29, 1980, scientists were worried about a potential massive avalanche, caused by an alarming bulge on the peak’s north side. A milewide slab of ice, snow and rock could break loose.

The next day, scientists warned that this growing bulge could be the harbinger of something far more devastating. It might mean “molten rock is rising through the mountain on its way to an explosive lava eruption.”

By May 2, the mountain’s contortions had grown so alarming that Gov. Ray ordered everybody except scientists and law enforcement officers out of a 5-mile radius around the mountain.

Truman, however, stayed put.

A bulge near the top of Mount St. Helens was growing on May 3, 1980, and scientists were uncertain what to make of it. The most alarming explanation was that “pressure of molten rock is building within the volcano.”

Even if that weren’t the case, the bulge could trigger a landslide or snow slide, which could reach Spirit Lake or the north fork of the Toutle River.

The next day, the bulge grew even larger. The Goat Rock area on the mountain moved almost 10 feet.

By May 7, scientists were certain that the bulge was caused by molten rock moving up from deep beneath the mountain. They also grew increasingly alarmed that the bulge would collapse and cause a huge mudflow. However, they believed such a mudflow would not endanger any populated areas.

Then, on May 8, Mount St. Helens spoke once again. It spewed smoke and ash for the first time in weeks. The plume went 2,000 feet high.

That same day, scientists discovered a “hot spot” under the bulge, and said the “hazard on the north side of the mountain is greater than at any time” since the volcano began erupting. They also confessed to being “mystified” about the volcano’s ultimate intentions.

Meanwhile, Truman, the elderly owner of a Spirit Lake lodge, refused to leave despite repeated pleas.

The week got off to an ominous start on May 10, 1980, when an earthquake jolted Mount St. Helens – the biggest quake since the mountain started rumbling.

Scientists “continued wondering about the restless volcano’s ultimate intentions.”

The next day, they issued their most serious warning yet. During the daily news briefing, they no longer said “if it erupts.” They said “when it erupts.”

One scientist warned that eruptions sometimes were tied with the gravitational pull of the sun and moon, which would peak on May 21.

On May 13, The Spokesman-Review reported that a large earthquake let loose an avalanche of ice on the mountain’s north flank. A scientist said the whole area was in a “precarious situation,” and officials again urged area resident Harry Truman to leave his Spirit Lake lodge.

They offered to fly him out via helicopter, but he said, “I’ve made up my mind more than ever not to leave.”

On May 16, a three-man team from the Boy Scouts of America was flown into Spirit Lake to retrieve 18,000 pounds of camp equipment. This seemed like a perilous undertaking (especially in retrospect), but a helicopter was poised at all times to fly them out if the mountain acted up.

A group of cabin owners threatened to defy a state roadblock and form a “vehicle caravan” to make a run into their cabins to recover belongings. The sheriff vowed to keep them out, but officials were also considering allowing them in as long as they signed a release.

On May 17, 1980, however, the mountain’s “intentions” seemed clearer than ever. The north flank of the mountain was expanding northward at the rate of 5 feet per day. Scientists weren’t sure how much longer that could go on before the whole thing might “break loose.”

And in a story that should have caught the attention of people in Eastern Washington, an amateur volcano researcher (and spaghetti house owner) in Toppenish warned, “What are we going to do here if we get a foot of ash? That could happen, you know.”

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