Reid Blackburn. I knew him only a week—the week before the May 18 eruption. At 27 he was a master of cameras and a student of words, a journalism graduate of Linfield College in Oregon and five-year photographer with the Vancouver Columbian, a radio technician, a backcountry trekker. He had just the right talents to keep vigil on the volcano and to fire two remote, radio-controlled cameras recording simultaneous images of significant events. For this meaningful project he was on loan from the Columbian to the USGS and the National Geographic Society. His post was a mountainside logging road camp called Coldwater I, eight miles from the crest of Mount St. Helens, three miles farther west than Coldwater II.
Colleagues say that Reid had the incisive eye of the born portrait photographer, capturing a face precisely when the mask falls away to reveal an instant of truth. He was as gifted in filming animals, anticipating the wistful look of a puppy, the trust of a lamb.
Nine months before, Reid had married Fay Mall, a member of the Columbian's office staff, who shared his life’s goals and ambitions.
I first met Reid on Sunday, May 11, when I helicoptered to Coldwater I and spent the night there to watch the mountain. I returned the following Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The talk ranged from newspapering to backpacking. As we talked on Thursday afternoon, I felt the ground sway like a boat on water. “An earthquake,” Reid said without expression. “It’s about 4.5.” Repeated jolts had calibrated him.
The eight miles that separated Reid from the crater seemed a reasonable margin of safety before May 18. Afterward, with four feet of ash blanketing the camp, and in the knowledge that people twice that far from the mountain had died, I found it hard to think reasonably about margins of safety.