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Eruption was ‘like the beginning of the Earth’

Part Three: A close call and the chance of a lifetime

By , Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
2 Photos
The eruption of Mount St.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens on Sunday, May 18, 1980. Photo Gallery

Steve Terrill was in a bad mood when he crawled into his sleeping bag. He wasn’t feeling any better when he woke up on Sunday, May 18, 1980.

Terrill and his son had spent the night camping on a point above Yale Lake. He had a nice view of Mount St. Helens, but the logged-off spot southwest of the conical peak was not where Terrill wanted to be that morning.

The fledgling photographer had planned to camp at Spirit Lake, but his 7-year-old son — also named Steve — absolutely refused.

Terrill got up late, and that didn’t set well with him, either.

“I started making a fire. My back was to the mountain and I heard this noise. I didn’t know what it was. I turned around: ‘My goodness! The mountain is erupting!’

“I was really upset,” Terrill recalled. “I told Steve to get his you-know-what out of bed and said, ‘Look what we missed because you made me come here.’”

Eruption timeline

March 15, 1980: Seismic activity begins with an increasing number of earthquakes.

March 20: A magnitude 4.2 quake is the first substantial indication of St. Helens' reawakening after 123 years.

March 27: First significant eruption in the "Lower 48" since California's Lassen Peak (1914-1917) opens a 250-foot crater.

April 30: Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, who had proclaimed a state of emergency on April 3, orders a Red Zone barring the public from areas around the volcano.

May 18: Eruption at 8:32 a.m. claims 57 lives and obliterates virtually everything within 8 miles.

May 19: Interstate 5 remains closed near Castle Rock because of fears Toutle River bridge is damaged.

May 20: Eastern Washington digs out from under an ash blizzard. Seattle and Portland send 50 trucks and sweepers to help Yakima clean an estimated 600,000 tons of ash. Spokane, which had 5 inches in spots, rations water as people hose the ash away.

May 21: Then-President Jimmy Carter arrives in Vancouver with several cabinet secretaries and members of Congress.

May 22: After seeing the damage from a helicopter, Carter says, "The moon looks like a golf course compared to what's up there."

May 23: With squad cars ruined by ash, Moses Lake police patrol on bikes; Yakima fruit growers use helicopters to blow ash off trees.

May 25: Emergency officials say 10,000 to 15,000 people were stranded when ash halted air, rail and highway travel in the state.

May 27: Nine days after the blast, the number of known dead stands at 21, with 68 missing.

Terrill climbed in his Chevy Blazer and turned on the radio.

“The station said Mount St. Helens is erupting, and they’re going to shut down the roads, and Spirit Lake has been covered by a mud and rock landslide.

“Right,” Terrill told himself. “I know how they sensationalize.”

That initial report soon was confirmed.

A magnitude 5.1 earthquake triggered the collapse of the volcano’s bulging north flank and summit, loosing the biggest landslide ever recorded. Magma trapped within the volcano exploded in a lateral blast that knocked down 230 square miles of forest in five minutes.

The explosion blew 1,314 feet off the mountain’s summit.

Heat from a rising plume of volcanic ash melted glacial ice, creating cement-like mud flows. Superheated avalanches of hot gas, ash, and pumice flowed into the valley north of the crater. The landscape where Terrill had wanted to camp was a gray wasteland.

The blast killed 57 people. View an interactive map of the blast zone and the victims.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens started Terrill’s career as an acclaimed nature photographer. The eruption almost ended it, too.

If young Steve Terrill hadn’t refused to camp overnight at Spirit Lake, the massive eruption would have snuffed out their lives.

“This is 30 years ago and I still get choked up,” Terrill acknowledged. “I said, ‘Steve, I guess Mount St. Helens took out Spirit Lake.’ I really hugged my son and told him how much I loved him.

“I have no idea why he did that,” Terrill said, referring to his son’s insistence on moving. Neither did Steve.

“I asked him, ‘How’d you know?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’”

The younger Terrill said he still isn’t sure why he refused to spend the night at Spirit Lake.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” 37-year-old Steve Terrill said a few days ago.

Terrill had been painting trucks for Freightliner in Portland, but the self-taught photographer took a leave of absence — and a pay cut — when a local publishing company gave him an opportunity to photograph the reawakened Mount St. Helens.

“My boss told me to go up there and see what kind of a photograph I could get,” Terrill said. “He was hoping to get a little steam plume. I tried to go up every weekend with my son.”

After six weeks of intermittent shooting, Terrill set up his tent on Saturday, May 17, on the northeast side of St. Helens.

When Terrill talked with Steve about the bulging mountain, “That triggered something in him. He didn’t want to stay. He was getting very stubborn.”

Terrill told the boy, “It will be beautiful when the sun comes up and I might be able get a shot of the mountain’s reflection in Spirit Lake.”

That was important because Sunday was the final day of his assignment.

His son wouldn’t yield. The boy wanted to go back to the Yale Lake area — on the opposite side of St. Helens — where they’d been earlier that day.

“I said, ‘No, it will take us too long to get back here’” for a Sunday shoot. “He was not letting up. I said, ‘OK, fine; we won’t be able to eat tonight. By the time we get back there, I won’t be able put our tent up.’ He said, ‘OK.’”

Terrill loaded their camp gear into his Blazer and headed along back roads to a logged-off point above Yale Lake.

“While we were driving, I told Steve I was going to have to get up early to go back to Spirit Lake and leave him at the tent. He said, ‘That’s fine.’ It was pretty late when I set up the tent. I went to sleep, and I was mad: you can’t believe how upset,” Terrill said.

As it turned out, Terrill had plenty of photo opportunities on Sunday. Accompanied by his son, Terrill spent the day photographing the spectacle.

“It was almost like the beginning of the Earth,” he said.

“I wasn’t thinking about our safety. The ash was going in another direction, and I thought we had nothing to worry about.”

Many people had similar reactions, heading off with their kids and cameras for a closer look.

Former Vancouver residents Ken and Joan Whitecotton were watching from their home off Kauffman Avenue.

“You could step out and kind of see it,” said Ken Whitecotton, now a resident of Tifton, Ga. “We all piled into a car, along with a friend who was staying with us. We drove as far as the State Patrol would let us go; it seems like Chelatchie Prairie.

“In a weird way, it was like tailgate party. A lot of people were up there,” he said. “There was a lot of ooohing and aaahing.”

Lightning that flashed inside the plume added to the display.

Their friend, Al Gosiak, took a family portrait of the Whitecottons, including 5-month-old Danielle, with the billowing volcanic plume in the background.

“It seems like we spent half an hour there,” Whitecotton said.

Terrill stayed until the light faded, when he realized: “My mom knows we’re up here.”

Terrill stopped at the first store along the way home.

“When I called my mom, she was crying,” he said. “She was absolutely devastated.”

Mary Terrill feared her son and grandson were dead. Two friends who knew about Terrill’s plans had already called her to offer their condolences.

“My mom told me, ‘Steve! Get your butt home now!’”

Terrill came back with about 800 shots, but he didn’t know what he had for a couple of days.

“I wasn’t processing my own film. A professional lab was up the street. I knew the owners, and when I went in, I said, ‘You have to be careful with the film. All of this is from the Mount St. Helens eruption yesterday.’ I was on pins and needles.”

Mount St. Helens

In a three-day series, The Columbian offers a detailed look into the storied volcano three decades after it forever altered the Southwest Washington landscape

SUNDAY: How the area has been used since the eruption.

MONDAY: Life returns to the devastated lands around the volcano.

TUESDAY: Remembering E-Day, the 18th of May.

When he opened the packages of prints, “I was shaking.”

Terrill was told that one of those photographs made its way into the White House, after President Jimmy Carter visited the region to review the damage.

“I don’t know how it came about, but my publisher said my photo had been selected to give to President Carter. He wanted me to be there to present it” to the president, Terrill said. “I didn’t want to. I took a photograph, that’s all I did. I signed it and they gave it to him.”

The younger Terrill said there are two things he remembers most about that day. Steve climbed on top of a boulder and posed for a photo in front of the erupting volcano, but his dad kept telling him to stand still.

“I remember getting scolded for moving around,” the younger Terrill recalled. But he was standing still. It was the boulder that was moving.

And he remembers the trip back home — the look of amazement on the faces of police officers who asked, “Where did you guys come from?”

“That happened at each roadblock,” 37-year-old Steve Terrill said.

And something remains fresh in the mind of the veteran photographer. Terrill realizes the close call he and his son had on a day that claimed 57 lives.

“When I see the list of people, I think how our names could have been on there.”

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter