Mount St. Helens, April 1980


At 8:27 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in the Pacific Northwest of the United States was 9,677 feet high. Over the next five minutes, the volcano lost 1,300 feet, blowing its top in an explosion so massive that trees toppled 17 miles away. A force equivalent to a 7-megaton nuclear weapon was unleashed into the Washington countryside, and hurricane-force winds stripped tree and soil out, leaving nothing but bare earth. Each places over a hundred miles away were coated with two inches of ash. “It was like going to the land of Mordor,” recounts one logger afterwards, according to Steve Olson’s masterly Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens.

For the preceding two months, since a small earthquake struck below the north face of the mountain, the authorities and the locals had been monitoring Mount St. Helens, but they didn’t expect such an explosion. After all, the mountain had been dormant since 1850s. So they watched fretfully, tensions rising between locals, businesses and government ran high over access restrictions, even as the mountain developed a constantly growing bulge on its side for weeks leading up to the blast.

On April 30, 1980, the governor’s office barred the public from areas around the mountain, but the order did not contain a map and citizens were led to believe that the forbidden zone was only a small area around the summit. When the explosion came, many were caught up in the pyroclastic flow — mixture of very fine ash and gas with temperatures around 350 degree Celsius, which came down the mountain at a very high speed. May 18th was a Sunday. If it had been any other day, the death toll would have been higher, because for of all the warnings, people were still working in the area. Among the dead were an 83-year-old local innkeeper whose cantenkerous refusal to leave the area despite warnings made him something of a folk hero, a newly-wed couple who were fishing and camping at a nearby lake, four vulcanologists, and two photographers.

The photos in this post are from Reid Blackburn, whose body and camera were recovered from the car he was in, outside the closed zones. Shortly after the explosion, colleagues from the Columbian, the local paper he worked for, visited the blast zone and recovered some of the gear, but the photos were unrecoverable. The photos here are from an earlier roll from April 1980, taken during a flight over the simmering volcano. Blackburn left them at the paper’s studio, and was only re-discovered in 2013.

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