1980 Eruption Of Mount St. Helens 'Seemed Apocalyptic' Howard Berkes covered the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens for NPR and has returned to the volcano for multiple stories over the years. He recalls the massive blast and its aftermath.

'It Seemed Apocalyptic' 40 Years Ago When Mount St. Helens Erupted

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Forty years ago today, the Mount St. Helens volcano erupted in Washington state. The blast sent searing hot gas and ash down the mountain at 300 miles per hour. Ash also rose into the sky; so much of it that even hundreds of miles away, day turned into night. Reporter Howard Berkes was there in 1980 and has this look back.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: It seemed apocalyptic.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The whole top of the mountain just exploded into one black ball. And it just kept growing and growing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Trees were pushed over like toothpicks.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: There are tree falls as much as 15 miles away from the mountain.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Mudslides have already created a 20-foot-high wall of water on one river. Evacuations of nearby towns are continuing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: All of the roads in eastern Washington are closed. Schools are closed. Airports are closed.

JIMMY CARTER: Somebody said it looked like a moonscape. But the moon looks like a golf course compared to what's up there.

BERKES: President Jimmy Carter flew over the blast zone a few days later.


CARTER: The ash is several hundred feet deep. There's tremendous clouds of steam coming up. There's enormous icebergs as big as a mobile home lie there melting. There's no way, I mean, to describe it. It's an unbelievable sight.

BERKES: It happened suddenly on May 18. At 8:32 a.m., Gerry Martin reported by ham radio from a ridge seven miles away.


GERRY MARTIN: Now we've got an eruption down here. Now we've got a big slide coming off. The whole west side - northwest side is sliding down. And it's coming up over the ridge towards me. I'm going to back out of here.

BERKES: Martin watched as a geologist on a ridge two miles closer disappeared in an avalanche of ash and smoke. Then Martin's radio went silent. Ty and Marianna Kearney were listening and watching from another ridge. They told me in 1999 that they sped down narrow dirt roads.


MARIANNA KEARNEY: We looked out our van windows. There was nothing but ash, clouds and all these columns. That was when I felt like, gosh, maybe we won't get out of here, you know?

TY KEARNEY: We feel very fortunate to survive and have a clear road. And other people, of course, had a really bad rough time out of it.

BERKES: Like Mike Moore, who was camping with his wife and two young daughters 13 miles away. In 1999, Moore showed me photos of a colorless landscape smothered in volcanic ash.


MIKE MOORE: Our major color that we saw was our tent when we camped that night after trying about 18 hours to get out and not being able to make it.

BERKES: Eighteen hours trudging through deep ash, climbing up and over fallen trees. Still, Moore told me...


MOORE: Our situation doesn't compare to what other people went through.

BERKES: Because he and his family were rescued.


MOORE: To me, the most pathetic story is of a gentleman that was in extremely good physical shape, and he made it 14 miles before he finally collapsed and went to sleep. And the body was found with his lungs and his trachea and his mouth and his nose just filled with ash.

BERKES: In all, 57 people died. The timing, magnitude and direction of the eruption surprised geologists. It first blew out sideways with more energy than an atomic bomb. Seth Moran is the chief scientist now at the Cascades Volcano Observatory.

SETH MORAN: There was no sign that it was going to happen at 8:32 in the morning of May 18. There was no short-term indication, and there had been a lot of optimism that there would be signs. And so it was actually pretty devastating in the days following that folks were thinking that they had missed something.

BERKES: They hadn't according to their data. So they have to be ready for sudden eruptions with little warning at Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes. Vulnerable communities have been identified and warned. And there's more monitoring now.

MORAN: That's a lesson that we certainly learned at Mount St. Helens. And for sure it's influencing the putting out instruments on other volcanoes that, you know, in some cases haven't erupted in thousands of years. But there's the potential for them to do so if that volcano wakes up.

BERKES: Back in 1999, Ty Kearney was philosophical about surviving the 1980 eruption.


T KEARNEY: It's something that doesn't happen very often in a lifetime of a human being, and it's nature. It's - nobody can stop it.

BERKES: The last big scare at Mount St. Helens began in 2004 and lasted nearly four years. But eruptions were relatively minor. The watching and the waiting continue for the next one.

For NPR News, I'm Howard Berkes.

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