Volcano’s toll hits close to home

Columbian photographer Reid Blackburn was killed in catastrophic blast

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

The May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens was more than just a major news story for the staff of The Columbian. It carried a painful personal toll.

Fay Blackburn lost her husband, and The Columbian lost one of its own.

Columbian photographer Reid Blackburn, 27, died when a massive landslide uncorked an unexpected lateral blast that sent a superheated cloud of ash and rock roaring down the Toutle River valley. Reid Blackburn, who had been photographing the volcano from a campsite, was eight miles away from the mountain’s north flank.

Fay Blackburn ignored most news coverage of the mountain’s 2004-2008 activity, but one TV news report caught her attention.

It showed a mother with a young child who drove along the reconstructed Spirit Lake Memorial Highway to Cold-water Ridge Visitor Center to get a closer look at steam and ash venting from the volcano.

“I wondered, ‘Why in the world a mother would risk the lives of herself and her children when they can see it on a television?’ “ Fay Blackburn said. “I’m sure the electronic wizardry of the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) is much more fine-tuned to know what the mountain is capable of, but I still believe whatever chance that she could be unpredictable is not worth your life.”

Fay Mall met Reid Blackburn when both worked at The Columbian in the 1970s, he as a photographer and she as a member of the display advertising staff. Fay Blackburn, who still works at The Columbian sorting and preparing letters to the editor for publication, felt an immediate connection with the young photographer with the red beard and dry sense of humor.

“When I heard his voice or saw him coming down the hallway, I would get butterflies in my stomach,” she said.

The pair found an apartment together only two weeks after they had started dating. They both loved the outdoors, and they spent a week hiking around the perimeter of Mount Hood after getting married in the summer of 1979.

A serious-minded guy, Reid Blackburn also displayed an impishness his friends came to expect. Doughnuts left unattended often turned up with bite marks matching Reid Blackburn’s tooth prints.

Reid Blackburn, the son of an engineer, developed a fixation on figuring out the way things worked especially photography. “The idea of painting with light intrigued him,” Fay Blackburn said.

When a series of earthquakes signaled Mount St. Helens was coming to life in March of 1980, Reid Blackburn was drawn to capture the mountain he had already climbed three or four times. By early May, Reid Blackburn had agreed to participate in an arrangement between National Geographic magazine and the Geological Survey to camp at a site above Coldwater Creek, eight miles away from the mountain’s bulging north flank.

“He probably just thought it would be a fun camping trip, and ‘I might get the shot of my career,’ “ Fay Blackburn recalled.

Reid Blackburn was due to come down from the mountain on Saturday, May 17, but the number of steam eruptions had slackened and Columbian photo editor Steve Small decided to end the newspaper’s 24-hour vigil at the mountain the following Wednesday. Reid Blackburn decided he might as well stay for those last few days.

At 8:32 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, Fay Blackburn was in bed asleep.

“A friend called and said, ‘Did you know the mountain blew?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, great, Reid can come home.’ “

From the street in front of their house in Felida, Fay Blackburn watched a dark billowing cloud of ash rise from the mountain into a clear blue sky. A dark haze obscured the mountaintop. Had she been able to see the mountain, she would have known something was terribly wrong.

Unbeknownst to Fay Blackburn and other Vancouver residents watching from the south, the mountain’s conical top had collapsed in the largest landslide in recorded history uncorking a lateral blast that flattened 150 square miles of forest on the mountain’s northwest side.

Reid Blackburn had only enough time to get in his car before he was caught in the superheated cloud of ash, pumice and gas.

Fay Blackburn called the newspaper and talked to photographer Dave Olson, who said he expected to hear from Reid Blackburn soon. Later in the day, as images of the ravaged landscape north of the mountain appeared on TV, Fay Blackburn remembers panic setting in. The following day, photographer Ralph Perry — who died six years later in a helicopter crash at Mount St. Helens — spotted Reid Blackburn’s car mired in mud and ash.

Four days went by before his body was recovered.

“It was tough,” said Olson. “A lot of people didn’t understand that. There was a lot we had to go through as a staff and as individuals.

“There was a love-hate with that mountain.”

Fay Blackburn bears no grudge against Mount St. Helens.

“To me, she’s beautiful,” Fay Blackburn said. “She hasn’t lost her beauty just because she doesn’t have her cap on. She didn’t mean to kill Reid.”

Originally published Oct. 17, 2004.