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Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Oct. 3, 2023

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From the newsroom: Covering St. Helens in 1980

By , Columbian Editor
2 Photos
The Monday, May 19, 1980 Columbain carried news of the eruption.
The Monday, May 19, 1980 Columbain carried news of the eruption. Photo Gallery

Wednesday marks the 42nd anniversary of the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens. On May 18, 1980, it erupted at 8:32 a.m., killing Columbian photojournalist Reid Blackburn and more than 50 other people.

I will never forget that day. But over the years, I have forgotten the previous week. Now, thanks to our recently digitized archives, I was easily able to find The Columbian’s coverage from the days before that fateful morning:

  • Monday, May 12: The Columbian, which was published on weekday afternoons then, reports that a “blister” of rock and snow on the volcano’s north side was expanding at 5 to 6 feet per day, at about the 7,700-foot level. “A number of scientists have speculated that earthquake activity, coupled with the growing bulge, indicates a lava eruption could be just around the corner.” The story appeared as the lead story in the local section, along with a photo Blackburn shot the day before.
  • Tuesday, May 13: A front-page story headlined “Ash prompts warning to pilots” also states that geologists have evacuated their vantage point on the north slope of the mountain for a spot 2 miles northeast. In Vancouver, a “federal disaster telephone” was installed, allowing the incident command center to speak instantly with emergency response agencies. The rate of minor earthquakes doubled.
  • Wednesday, May 14: Clouds part, revealing a new notch in the volcano’s top. A rumor spreads in Seattle that lava was flowing, but only steam and ash are seen, along with a greenish-yellow crust of chloride and sulphur. Measurements show the volcano’s heat had melted 76 inches of snow from its slopes in the last 11 days of April. Speculation continues that gravitational pull from next week’s full moon could trigger a major eruption.
  • Thursday, May 15: After a national media outlet charters a private plane for him, celebrity curmudgeon Harry Truman, 83, speaks at an Oregon school about why he continues to live next to an active volcano. Meanwhile measurements show the volcano is pumping 10 to 22 tons per day of foul-smelling sulphur dioxide into the air.
  • Friday, May 16: “Mount St. Helens played peek-a-boo Thursday and there was very little peeking. Most of the day was spent hiding in clouds,” says The Columbian. A helicopter crew retrieves 11 boats from scout camps along Spirit Lake, angering cabin owners who are demanding access to their property in the Red Zone. A protest is called for noon Saturday. In those days, we had no Saturday paper, so our next edition was published on…
  • Sunday, May 18: The Sunday morning Columbian carries six stories and two photos on its front page. None of them have to do with Mount St. Helens. On the local cover, the daily volcano watch reports the bulge on the north flank appears broken and distorted, indicating the mountain is deforming internally. “Scientists say they do not know the significance of that observation,” according to the story.

On the inside pages, a wire story reports the protesting cabin owners were let into the Red Zone briefly on Saturday to retrieve some belongings. Another access period is planned for later today. On the lifestyle pages, a story about the Hazel Dell Parade of Bands notes that a float from Faith Baptist Church bore a Bible verse and a miniature Mount St. Helens, complete with steam.

The obituaries noted Friday’s passing of Lena Hillebrand, 96, of Battle Ground, a former Kaiser Shipyards worker who loved history and following the news. “I wish she could have seen Mount St. Helens erupt,” said her daughter, Marie Nelson.

She almost got her wish.

If you’d like to read our Mount St. Helens coverage, our archives from our first edition in 1890 through 2011 are available online at newspapers.com. There is a small subscription fee required.