The very beauty of the mountain helped deceive us. It was a mountain in praise of mountains, towering over lesser peaks, its near-perfect cone glistening white in all seasons. Thousands through the years had given it their hearts—climbers, artists, photographers, lovers of beauty’s ultimate expression. Some were among the 61 people drawn into its deadly embrace on that shining Sunday morning last May.
For all its splendor, Mount St. Helens was a time bomb, ticking away toward a trigger labeled “self-destruct.” Seven weeks before, the world received notice of the mountain’s brooding when it first vented plumes of steam and ash. Its immediate domain in southwestern Washington, a favored land of deep forests, rushing streams, rich farmlands, and flourishing cities, waited anxiously as successive eruptions and earthquakes dirtied its crown and fractured its sides.
Then anxieties eased as days and weeks passed without disaster. Though the volcano seethed and trembled, and its bruised north flank bulged morbidly, there were even some who voiced impatience for bigger eruptions. To many, the mountain appeared to be calibrating down toward unreadable calm.
“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it. . . .” With those words—tinged with excitement rather than panic, hearers said—David Johnston, geologist for the United States Geological Survey, announced the end of calm and the start of cataclysm. Thirty-year-old blond-bearded David was stationed at a USGS camp called Coldwater II, six miles from the mountaintop, to monitor eruptions.
Those words were his last. The eruption he reported was powerful and unexpectedly lateral. Much of the initial blast was nozzled horizontally, fanning out northwest and northeast, its hurricane wave of scalding gases and fire-hot debris traveling at 200 miles an hour. Its force catapulted the geologist and the house trailer that sheltered him off a high ridge and into space above Coldwater Creek. His body has yet to be found.
The start of the eruption has been fixed at 8:32 a.m. Inevitably, the atomic bomb is cited for comparison of magnitude, and the energy computed is that of 500 Hiroshimas. In a quadrant extending roughly west to north, but including a shallower fan to the northeast, 150-foot Douglas firs were uprooted or broken like brittle straws for distances as far as 17 miles from the mountain.