Vancouver residents featured in film about St. Helens blast

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



Did You Know?

Other films in the Smithsonian Channel’s “Make it Out Alive” series and their premiere dates:

San Francisco Earthquake, Sunday

• Oklahoma Tornado, Oct. 29

• Oil Rig Explosion, Nov. 5

• USS Indianapolis, Nov. 12

• Dam Disaster, Nov. 19

UPDATE: Changed the time of Monday’s airtime to 4 p.m.

Fay Blackburn lost her husband, Reid Blackburn, on Mount St. Helens in 1980.

Geologist Richard Waitt spent 35 years collecting accounts from 400 survivors and witnesses.

Now the two Vancouver residents are sharing their stories in a Smithsonian Channel film that debuted Sunday and repeats at 4 p.m. Monday. Their insights into the volcanic eruption on May 18, 1980, are part of the premiere episode of the Smithsonian Channel’s six-part series, “Make It Out Alive.”

Fay Blackburn’s memories of the event, however, never included fuzzy pink slippers, regardless of what the film’s reenactments might indicate.

That was just one of the issues she had with the re-created scenes that alternated with science lessons, archive imagery and survivor interviews. Actors fill in for principal characters — including the Blackburns — in re-creations of life-or-death moments.

“I was disappointed. I never had any indication there would be reenactments,” she said.

Blackburn is a retired Columbian employee. Reid Blackburn was a Columbian photographer. In its six live-or-die stories, the film lists the characters as photographer, veteran, vulcanologist, camper, student and lumberjack. Three lived; three were among the 57 who died.

If you substituted “old curmudgeon” for “veteran,” a lot of people around here would immediately know who the three victims were, which takes away some of the suspense.

There is a bit of early scene-setting by Waitt, author of “In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St. Helens.”

Click, zip, click

In addition to providing scientific background, Waitt offers some narration of survival stories. After the student, Keith Ronnholm, woke up to an erupting volcano, he couldn’t decide whether to put on his pants or take photographs.

He did a little of both.

“He’s outside his car, standing in his underwear,” Waitt said from his Cascades Volcano Observatory office in east Vancouver. “He takes a photograph, puts one pant leg on, and takes another photograph.”

After pulling on the other pant leg, he zips his fly and takes another photograph, Waitt said.

Fay Blackburn provided the production team with 30 or so personal photographs. She provided filmmakers with one authentic piece of Reid Blackburn’s gear that was featured in a reenactment: the notebook he used to log his last shots.

“To the end, he was a photographer,” she told an off-camera interviewer in one of the film’s segments. “Still on assignment.”

Waitt said that he frequently receives requests from production companies about his work with the U.S. Geological Survey.

“I was on the wrong end of a camera lens quite a bit,” he said.

Over the past few years, Waitt often didn’t know a telecast had aired “until someone said, ‘I saw you on TV last night.’ There are quite a few of them I haven’t seen.”

But it’s a story Waitt is excited to tell.

“It’s a hell of a story. It’s fascinating: one of the big natural history stories in the Pacific Northwest,” Waitt said.

Which is why Fay Blackburn was wondering why the Smithsonian version had to be, well, fuzzy on some details.

A drawn-out death

“The story is good enough to stand on its own,” she said.

“I am sensitive to the subject, especially with me being in it.”

One sensitive point involved an extended portrayal of Reid Blackburn struggling to stay alive inside his car.

“Reid was dead early on,” Fay Blackburn said.

Another scene showed her rushing from the bedroom when the phone rang. The Blackburns’ wedding photo is on the wall above the phone; the actress playing Blackburn doesn’t look much like the bride in the wedding photo.

And there’s something else about that rush-to-the-phone scene that only she would notice.

“I never have and never will own a pair of pink fuzzy slippers.”