Lungs burning, campers crawl to safety of getaway car

Couple camping at Placid Lake 34 years ago today recall Mount St. Helens eruption

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Joan Magin took several photographs from a high-country campsite 34 years ago that captured the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Many of the photos feature billowing ash clouds that only hint at the volcano's destructive fury. The last shot on the roll — an empty highway stretching ahead through a green forest —also represents a crucial aspect of May 18, 1980.

The Scappoose, Ore., woman calls that photograph "Getting the hell outta there."

Evading danger that morning wasn't just a matter of throwing their camping gear in the car and racing for Stevenson. At one point, she and former husband John Magin were crawling along the trail to the parking area. And when they finally climbed in their 1976 Opel, it wouldn't start.

They were camping at Placid Lake, 22 miles southeast of Mount St. Helens.

When the volcano erupted, "we heard absolutely nothing," she said. "John was at the lake getting water. He hollered at me to come and bring my camera, and said, 'Look up!'"

She took a photograph, and by the time she advanced the film for her second shot, the sky had darkened. Through the falling ash, another group of campers went past them, heading for the parking area. Joan and John weren't far behind them on the trail.

"We were halfway and got hit by a wave blast of heat. I took a breath and felt the inside of my lungs burning."

The air seemed to be better down at ground level, so they crawled the last quarter mile or so their car.

"Our car wouldn't start. There was some kind of battery issue. We fiddled with the cables on the battery and got it started."

They had other issues on the way down the highway.

"We were concerned about the bridges, whether we'd be able to cross them. We stopped at every bridge. The last was Wind River. I jumped out to see if the bridge was clear."

Magin said she looked back up the road and could see "stuff" from the eruption headed their way so she dove back into the car and told John to "get the hell out of here!"

They had a chance to catch their breath when they stopped for breakfast at a cafe in Stevenson.

"When we walked in, we were all gray and black and icky looking," Joan said. It wasn't just on the outside.

"I was coughing up black stuff for four weeks," she said.

Magin still remembers what she had for breakfast 34 years ago, by the way.

"I ordered a Denver omelet and a red beer: beer with tomato juice," she said.

"Coffee was not going to do it."