Off Beat: Newsroom alums check in with St. Helens memories

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



Bill Stewart turned down an invitation to spend that Saturday night on Mount St. Helens, which saved his life.

A few days later, Sally James was asleep when the phone rang at 2 a.m.; it was the White House.

They were two of the people we heard from after a recent story about the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens … and we heard from a lot of people.

Regional and national TV newscasters followed our story about a long-lost roll of film shot by Reid Blackburn a month before he died in the eruption.

But hearing from former Columbian colleagues was even better. They provided some untold stories about the historical milestone.

Blackburn was on a photo assignment inside the restricted zone, and Bill Stewart drove up to the roadblock to deliver a shipment of film on May 17, 1980.

Stewart had been covering the awakening volcano since its initial tremors. In March, he was in a ranger station when an earthquake hit. The seismic monitoring technology was not exactly state-of-the-art.

“They had a pencil on a string, hanging from a fluorescent light,” he recalled. “When that got out of control, we decided it was time to go.”

After Blackburn took the film shipment, he invited Stewart to come up to the camp and spend the night: “He said they had plenty of food and were getting a supply of beer.”

Stewart had the credentials to get into the restricted area and considered the invitation.

“I declined because my wife had planned a nice supper,” Stewart said. “If I’d have gone with him, I’d have been killed.”

The eruption was an international story, and we didn’t have an inside track when President Jimmy Carter scheduled a May 22 helicopter tour of the site.

“The White House was going to choose who gets a ride,” Sally James said, and press secretary Jody Powell was given her home phone number.

“I didn’t know when I’d be getting called, and I went to sleep,” she said.

Powell called James at 2 a.m. to tell her that The Columbian was on one of the press helicopters. James notified a photographer and they got ready for work.

At an airport press conference following the helicopter tour, Carter described the wasteland: “The moon looks like a golf course compared to what’s up there.”

James, who covered that press conference, concurs: “It’s still the stuff of nightmares.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.