‘Let’s get the hell out of here’

Geologist captures witnesses' powerful stories of Mount St. Helens' fury in new book

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter



One of the biggest projects of Richard Waitt’s career began in a noisy Seattle bar on a Friday night.

It was there that Waitt, a geologist with the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, connected with a man and woman who narrowly escaped with their lives after the catastrophic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

It was early June, a few weeks after the disaster. Waitt had seen their story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer while passing through town. He called the reporter, tracked the two down and met them at the bar. Waitt conducted his own interview, taking notes, not sure what he would do with it at the time.

Waitt was among many U.S. Geological Survey scientists who had descended on Washington that year, working to better understand the eruption that had just changed modern volcanology.

“I’m not a reporter, but it was just interesting,” Waitt said. “I felt it would help with the science.”

More than three decades and hundreds of interviews later, Waitt is finishing a new book compiling detailed, dramatic first-hand accounts of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption and its aftermath. The book, titled “In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St. Helens,” is set to be published in November by Washington State University Press.

The book will offer a new glimpse at a defining event in the region’s history.

“There’s huge value in it. People understand stories,” said Carolyn Driedger, outreach coordinator for the Cascades Volcano Observatory.

She added: “We need to keep the story alive.”

Today marks the 34th anniversary of the massive eruption that decapitated Mount St. Helens and drastically altered the Northwest landscape. The disaster killed 57 people, flattened miles of forest and darkened skies as ash billowed from the volcano’s crater.

For those who lived in the area at the time, some details of the blast that shattered a quiet Sunday morning remain seared in memory. Others have faded with the passing years. A new generation of younger residents have no memory of the 1980 eruption, seeing it only through photos, videos and stories.

There’s a closing window to capture Mount St. Helens anecdotes as 1980 drifts further into history, Driedger said. That’s why she encourages people who were here to write their memories down. Digitize or preserve photos, she said.

“You may just think you’re telling stories and having a great time,” Driedger said. “But really you’re doing a service by passing on that information.”

Powerful surge, powerful stories

Waitt didn’t always know he was going to write a book.

Even before the interview in the Seattle bar, he had talked to other witnesses in the frantic days after the 1980 eruption. He continued arranging intermittent interviews until 1982, when he walked away from the project without the time or backing to pursue it.

But Waitt found himself unable to let go of it. “It was too interesting,” he said.

As the 20th anniversary of the eruption approached in 2000, Waitt was finally given the green light by USGS to dive into the project. He worked at it off and on as the book took shape during the next decade. Waitt estimates he spoke to “a few hundred” witnesses in all — some of those a dozen times or more.

Throughout those conversations, Waitt said, one phrase was repeated over and over.

Let’s get the hell out of here.

The two people Waitt met at the bar in 1980 were Gil Baker and Kathie Baker (not related), a photographer and writer from the Seattle area who found themselves in the path of the volcano’s deadly surge on May 18. Gil Baker had photographed earlier volcanic bursts at Mount St. Helens, and the two returned so she could write captions for an exhibit of that work.

At 8:32 a.m., an earthquake and immense landslide uncorked the deadly eruption. Gil and Kathie jumped in a dark green Oldsmobile and tore down state Highway 504, they said, at speeds as high as 100 mph. They outran a menacing, fast-moving pyroclastic cloud in the process.

Other stories came from campers in the area. Loggers or their supervisors. Pilots. Emergency responders. Even a group of school children at a learning center northeast of Mount St. Helens on the day of the eruption.

Witnesses experienced a powerful feeling of fascination or dread, Waitt said — or both.

“They don’t know what’s in the cloud,” Waitt said. “But they know it’s nasty.”

Uncertainty was a familiar feeling even for those out of harm’s way. Sgt. Fred Neiman of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office was fresh out of the reserve academy at the time. He and another reserve deputy were stationed at a roadblock on Yale Bridge every night for about a week after the eruption.

Their job: Make sure no one crossed into Cowlitz County to the north — then considered the Red Zone.

“The first night we spent up there was the day the mountain blew up. We really didn’t know what was going to happen. Was it going to blow up again and come our way?” Neiman said.

“We kept the car running and kept it pointed south.”

No ‘one-time wonder’

Human stories present a different sort of data than most scientists are used to working with. Instead of hard figures and measurements, they yield inexact memories and recollections, sometimes unverifiable.

Waitt’s cache of conversations turned up inevitable discrepancies, vagaries and holes, he said.

That’s understandable. Many were recalling details decades after the fact. And in moments of trauma or desperation, Waitt said, “nobody’s looking at their watch.”

Some of those discrepancies involved time and place — where people were in relation to the volcanic surge as it swept across the landscape, for example. Occasionally, specifics would differ from one source to the next, Waitt said.

“The way you work through that is, you get another one,” he said. “And another one. And another one.”

Waitt also relied on newspaper accounts, photos and other materials as he gathered interviews, he said. They’re compelling tales, he said, but each one reveals something about the science of the event.

Human stories do more than capture a window into a volcano’s past, said John Ewert, scientist-in-charge at the Cascades Volcano Observatory. They can also offer better understanding of its activity in the future, he said.

Ewert pointed to the example of Nevado del Huila, a volcano in Colombia that woke up in 2007 with an unusual event: releasing large amounts of water from its snow- and ice-covered peak. The phenomenon preceded a bigger eruption in 2008 — and scientists soon learned it had been observed by locals before, Ewert said.

“The eye-witness accounts of these things can be pretty important,” he said. “That’s how we develop a kind of collective understanding.”

Regional scientists already know Mount St. Helens hasn’t breathed its last. The mountain went through a tamer eruptive phase between 2004 and 2008. And the USGS recently confirmed that pressurizing magma is quietly recharging it for the next one.

“It wasn’t just a one-time wonder,” Driedger said. “We know that we will have another eruption.”

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