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Ridgefield woman shares photos taken from plane day before Mount St. Helens blew

By , Columbian Editor
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Jaquie Cole of Ridgefield pauses for a portrait with a photo she took of Mount St. Helens in 1980 on Monday afternoon, May 10, 2021. Cole and her friend flew in a small plane over Mount St. Helens on the afternoon of May 17, 1980, less than 24 hours before the big eruption.
Jaquie Cole of Ridgefield pauses for a portrait with a photo she took of Mount St. Helens in 1980 on Monday afternoon, May 10, 2021. Cole and her friend flew in a small plane over Mount St. Helens on the afternoon of May 17, 1980, less than 24 hours before the big eruption. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Jaquie Cole had never flown in an airplane before, so when her best friend called to invite her on a scenic flight to Mount St. Helens, she didn’t hesitate to accept.

The date: Saturday, May 17, 1980. The day before … well, you know.

At 8:32 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980, U.S. Geological Survey scientist David Johnston radioed his final words: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This it is!”

A 5.1 magnitude earthquake shook the volcano, triggering the largest landslide in recorded history and releasing 24 megatons of thermal energy that left a crater 2,084 feet deep. The blast and its aftermath killed 57 people, including Johnston and Columbian photojournalist Reid Blackburn.

To this day, Cole, who today lives in Ridgefield, treasures one of the last photos ever taken of Mount St. Helens before that cataclysmic event. Here’s how she got her picture:

In May 1980, Cole, then Jaquie Chambers, lived in the small community of Granite Falls, just north of Lake Stevens, where she grew up. She’d just turned 20 years old.

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On the morning of May 17, she got an unexpected call from a good friend, Susan McCulley.

“We’re going to fly around Mount St. Helens. Do you want to go?”

Susan’s father, John Davis, was a Boeing engineer and experienced private pilot. He wanted to see the active volcano, which had awakened in March. Susan’s husband didn’t want to go, so there was an extra seat. Would Jaquie like to ride along?

“I had about a half-hour to decide,” she remembered. Although officials had established a Red Zone around the volcano, the airspace was still open at a distance of 10 miles. And it was a beautiful spring day with perfect visibility.

“I was in safe hands, so I felt safe to go,” she said. She drove out to Paine Field in Everett where she met up with Susan, John, and Susan’s brother, Scott Davis, who grabbed the fourth seat.

She remembers taking off around noon, and being very excited to take her first airplane ride. South of Seattle, Mount Rainier came into view, majestic and snow-capped. Up and down the Cascade range, they could see the snowy peaks. Except for Mount St. Helens.

Alive with geothermal energy, “It looked like a giant molehill,” Cole said. Brown in color, “It looked really strange to me.”

As they approached the mountain and its exclusion zone, they fell into formation with a number of press planes. As they circled, she could see a bulge deforming the volcano’s north side. She remembers seeing giant cracks in the earth on the volcano’s swollen flank.

“It looked so surreal,” she said. She didn’t own a camera, but made several photos with a Polaroid camera she had borrowed from her mother on the way to the airport.

After they circled, they returned to Everett, where they landed about 4 p.m.

“It was really the experience of a lifetime, flying for the first time,” she said.

Today, 41 years after the flight, she still treasures the memories and the photos she and the other three made that day. She’s shared the photos with her family over the years, but wanted to reach out this year to let others see them and hear about that last sightseeing flight.

“I need to share my story, even though it’s little and nothing bad happened,” she said. But she did get a memorable snapshot on her first plane ride.

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