Story and Photos by SPC Charles Ames; Additional Photos & Information Courtesy U.S. Geological Society and the U.S. Forestry Service   -   Posted Jun, 2000

The breath-taking beauty of the Pacific Northwest... stunning mountains, crystal clear lakes and streams... cabin cruisers on Lake Washington... but there are problems as well.  Rain... earthquakes... Puma... Canada Geese... Tsunami... road rage -  these are but a few of the perils we face everyday and thats just in the mall parking lot!  Oh, yeah, then there's all those volcanoes...  Around the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of volcanoes form what scientists call the 'Ring of Fire'.

A pristine Spirit Lake and snow-covered Mt. St. Helens in the Summer of 1979

20 years ago Mt. St. Helens - one of five volcanoes here in the state of Washington - demonstrated her prowess as one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes.  National Guardsmen from throughout the Pacific Northwest quickly responded, joining a massive combined effort to save lives, house and feed their neighbors and minister to broken bodies and broken hearts.

Geologists tell us that, for the continental United States, none is more active than the 'Queen of the Ring' - Mount St. Helens - known as "Lawetla", or "Smoking Mountain" to the people of the Cowlitz tribe that inhabit the region.

St. Helens has been intermittently active throughout its history, but has always been considered an active volcano.  This became increasingly evident in March of 1980 as the north face began to bulge outward at an alarming rate of 5 feet every day.


Here are a few excerpts from U.S. Geological Survey records;

March 15, 1980: From the 15th through the 21st, over 100 earthquakes were recorded.  But it was the magnitude 4.1 earthquake of March 20 that provided scientists with the first solid early warning sign that Mount St. Helens might be preparing to erupt for the first time since 1857.

March 27: At 11:20AM an observer in an Army National Guard reconnaissance plane reported seeing a hole in the icecap near the summit and a gray smoke plume extending southeast from the hole.

April 4: Governor Dixie Lee Ray called out the National Guard to assist deputies at roadblocks to channel traffic away from the danger area.

April 15: Although many National Guard troops had been recalled, a small contingent remained to man the roadblock on State Route 504.  Strangely the big mountain fell into eerie silence at this time, although the bulge continued to grow.

April 29: State officials met with Governor Ray and formulated plans to close a large area around the volcano, creating a "red zone" (no public access) and a "blue zone" (restricted access).


Mt. St. Helens spews forth a cloud that would reach a height of 15 miles!

At 8:32 a.m., on the 18th of May, 1980, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake released the pressure that had been building up inside Mt. St. Helens like a pin poking an over-filled balloon.  After 123 years "Lawetla" revealed her true nature once more.

In an instant, over two-thirds of a cubic mile of earth and rock surged outward from the side of the mountain.  The blast, equivalent to the force of five hundred Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, was heard over seven hundred miles away.

A supersonic shockwave akin to the impact of a major meteorite swept down from the mountain and buried the floor of Toutle Valley six-feet deep with millions of felled trees.  Trees were blown down as far as 20 miles away, their neatly aligned and stripped trunks resembled combed spaghetti.

A cloud of superheated volcanic ash and acidic incandescent gases traveling at nearly 400 miles per hour sped along the ground.  Inside the cloud the temperature had reached 1,300 degrees.  Nothing stood in it's path.  It literally sucked the life from the ground, leaving it sterile.

Spirit Lake was filled with the stripped remains of thousands of trees that formerly adorned it's shores...  Mt. Rainier can be seen in the distance

Within fifteen minutes the plume of ash had reached a height of 15 miles, and would circle the Earth in fifteen days.  The mineral content and the friction within the column created its own lightning.   What remained was a hole over a mile wide, nearly 2 miles long and 2,000 feet deep.  It was history's largest recorded landslide.

So many voices gave their impression of the destruction.  For many these were their last words;

"Vancouver, Vancouver, This is it!"
"Here it comes, here it comes."
"Spirit Lake is gone."

The Toutle Valley, once a popular camping and hiking area, now a wasteland

Despite two months of warning, 57 lost their lives in the cataclysm of fire and choking ash, or in the mudslides and floods that followed.

An estimated 7,000 large animals (deer, elk, and bear) perished.

Nearly a half-billion tons of old-growth forestland were blown away; enough lumber to create 300,000 two-bedroom homes, replacing every house in Alaska or North Dakota.

The "Smoking Mountain", which had stood just shy of 10,000 feet, had fallen to 8,363 feet.  Homes, resorts, roads, campsites, automobiles, shops, timber... everything near the mountain now lie under a thick layer of displaced earth and settling ash, as deep as 300' in places.


A quiet panic gripped Yakima as a silent, gray blanket covered the city.  By 10:00 a.m., the only light reaching Yakima came from thin bands of blue on either horizon.  Birds smacked into windows as sky, ground, and landmarks all began to turn gray.  Insects wandered in crazy circles.  Dust clogged carburetors.  People abandoned their cars as visibility began to be measured in feet. The breadbasket of the Evergreen State had become a gray wasteland.  The powder-like ash absorbed all sound lending a surreal "Twilight Zone" effect.  A strangely sticky ash blanketed every surface.  Then the questions began; Would it be caustic? Poisonous?  What happens when this stuff washes into the sewers?  What will happen to crops coated with ash?  How will cattle and horses forage and drink?

Once a textbook example of the well-defined peak charactistic of "stratovolcanoes"...
... in a moment, transformed into a twisted ruin







President Jimmy Carter flew in immediately to inspect the devastation and commented, "The Moon looks like a golf course compared to what's up there. It's the worst thing I have ever seen."  No one doubted that the National Guard would be there to help... and that is exactly what they did.

These citizen soldiers left their homes and loved ones at a time when all good sense told them to remain.  They calmly reported to armories, prepared aircraft for flight, checked and fueled cargo trucks, filled water tankers, checked food and medical provisions - in short, they did exactly what they had been trained to do, in spite of the chaos and panic all around them.  Then they went to help the thousands whose lives had been blown to pieces by the big mountain.

Obscurity Lake, about 10 miles north of Mt. St. Helens...
... blasted into oblivion by the eruption







We were able to locate four veteran fliers of that chaos and panic of 20 years ago, but of course there are many, many others.  All were helicopter pilots during the crisis.  As it turns out, all four had served their country during the Vietnam War, and each, in turn, returned home to serve their neighbors as members of the Washington Army National Guard.  Each had settled down to the routine of weekend drills and a few weeks of Annual Training, usually at Yakima Training Center.  In fact they were all at the training center when Mt. St. Helens erupted.


Harold Kolb is a man you might describe as 'rangy'.  He personifies the modern cowboy, but then his mount was a 'Huey' helicopter, made famous during the Vietnam War.  Kolb had served three years in Vietnam.  Now, after five years in the Washington Army National Guard the call to serve - to go in harm's way for the sake of others - came again.

We had started our Annual Training the day before.  Somebody noticed a huge black cloud on the horizon.  Suddenly we got the word that we had ten minutes to go get equipment together and prepare to shift our operations to the Mt. St. Helens area."

Survivors recount the story of their ordeal to Army National Guard helicopter crewman

"Ash was beginning to fall in Yakima, and I was the last helicopter to get out", remembers Kolb.  Only half of the choppers did get out. The relentless blanket of ash and pumice grounded the rest.  "Although we flew max 'VNE' (Velocity Not To Exceed) airspeed, we had to physically reach out of the cockpit while we were flying to wipe the ash off the windshield."

Kolb spent his next two weeks flying 2 or 3 missions of rescue or recovery every day.

One instance involved locating and picking up two men and their sons.  One man's hands were burned from his tent melting around him.  He recalls that one of the eeriest sights was of trees that were still standing having an orange glow from sap baked to the surface where the bark had been blasted off.  Mr. Kolb recently retired as a CW5, after a long career as a Flight Instructor for our helicopter pilots.

Chief Kolb with one of the survivors

COL Holmberg is the State Army Aviation Officer and Deputy Commander of the 66th Aviation Brigade headquartered at Ft. Lewis, WA.  20 years ago he was a Captain and a Platoon Leader (the exact position is called 'Company Commander' now), during the Annual Training.  He passed news about the eruption to his men and gave them ten minutes to prepare and begin pre-flight inspection.  The point-of-no-return approached where light would begin to fade and ash-fall would increase sufficiently to endanger engines while aloft.

CPT Holmberg and his group departed.  "I remember flying 120 knots which is as fast as that craft can cruise, and I was picking up ash quicker than I could outrun it.  I was considering doing an emergency landing when I noticed we could see better out the sides."  They were forced to "crab" forward... literally flying sideways.

Chief Kolb (r) and his crew: Crew Chief Gary McDonald (left) and fellow Pilot Bob Bryant (center)

Upon return to Gray Army Airfield at Fort Lewis, CPT Holmberg was appointed Operations Officer for the disaster.  He began to coordinate the movement of men and equipment, arranging for refueling, orchestrating maintenance operations and tying in with other state and federal agencies.

Looking back, COL Holmberg estimates that somewhere between 80-90% of the rescue missions flown into the St. Helens area were flown by Washington Army National Guard aircraft.

Jesse Hagerman is now a Chief Warrant Officer in the Guard. During the aftermath of the eruption he was a Captain in the 81st Brigade's Aviation section. He had flown with the Marines and with Air America during the Vietnam War.  At the time he was a civilian pilot with Weyerhaeuser and was very familiar with the Mt. St. Helens area.  This gave him an intimate knowledge of the refueling locations in the area and enabled him to operate there for much longer than other pilots.

Near the base of the mountain, this "Huey" risks losing visibility

CPT Hagerman is credited by many as having flown the operation's most dramatic rescue missions in the most unfavorable circumstances, sometimes flying with visibility was as low as 1/2 or 1/4 of a mile.  CPT Hagerman rescued seven people and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his action, the first time in decades the award has been given during peacetime.

"One of the concerns was that we didn't know if the ash would be laced with silica.  If it got in your lungs you could die.  They gave us masks, which we got rid of after the fourth day when the rain packed the dust down."

Floods and mudslides cut roads and communication lines

CW4 Hagerman still flies helicopters.  A few months ago he collided mid-air with a news helicopter, narrowly avoiding disaster.  Both pilots were able to maintain control of their helicopters and land.

COL James Kelly, now the Deputy Director of Operations, was a CW3 when Mt. St. Helens blew.  "None of us heard the explosion.  We were all in a briefing at the time.  Each of was already paired up with our 'stick buddy', so the timing was right.  Someone outside started hollering and we rushed out to see what was up, saw the black cloud... we knew what had happened.  The CO told us we had 10 minutes, and sure enough, the first birds were in the air in 10.  About two-thirds of us got out before the dust really hit hard."

For weeks the National Guard pilots worked to rescue the survivors

"We flew to Wenatchee and then on to Gray Army Airfield to operate from there.  We flew as many missions as we could, non-stop, for the rest of our AT.  Other than a couple of helicopters from the Oregon Army National Guard out of Portland, we were the only significant airlift capability on the scene.  From Gray it was clear 'til you were almost on the mountain, coming in from the West, as we were; the Eastern approach was completely blocked by the cloud."

"The Huey's really held up well... a few of the compressors suffered some damage, and our rotor blades sure got a good sandblasting from the dust and grit, but none of them were down during the operation."

The "Huey" was the workhorse of the recovery operation, just as it had been during the Vietnam War

Over the next few days, helicopter crews would rescue 130 people from the blast area and a few more from the flood area.  Finally, however, the rescuers turned to the grim task of recovering the dead.







Remembrances 20 years after the cataclysm

And so, 20 years after the destruction, a small ceremony is held in the shadow of the giant to commemorate the lives saved and lost.  The sacrifices of the men and women of dozens of state and local law enforcement, rescue, fire and medical agencies, the National Guard and Red Cross were remembered by those in attendance, many of whom have had their lives forever changed by the cataclysm.

Dignitaries made speeches and reporters took pictures.  A short distance from the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitors Center a small grove of trees was dedicated as a memorial.  Mr. Roy Wilson, a Tribal Council Chairman of the Cowlitz Tribe spoke of "Lawetla" in respectful tones and led a procession around the grove, complete with a Boy Scout Color Guard.  The understated ceremony could not recollect the immensity of the event; certainly that is left only to the hearts of the survivors.

Roy Wilson represented the Cowlitz Tribe

For now "Lawetla" sleeps under a serene blanket of fluffy white snow and tourism fuels the region.  Were it not for the photographs showing her previous contours, a visitor might not realize how much weight she has lost.

The chartered helicopters of "Whirled Tours" ferry visitors high above the famous peak, daring to descend into the gaping maw of the volcano itself.  Inside the now silent crater at her top is a great 'lava dome'.

This solid mass of cooled magma has created a dam against which pressure is continuing to build.  Against the sheer size of the mountain, it seems small - yet it is already higher than the Space Needle, the size of 6 Kingdomes and growing at such a rapid rate, geologists think it may replace the original mountain peak in just 200 years!  Only from the vantage point provided by the helicopter may the dimensions of the 'lava dome' be truly appreciated.

The next eruption - and there will be a 'next eruption' - is expected to be as great or greater than the 1980 event.

The 'lava dome', here shortly after the eruption, continues to grow









Queen, King and Court

The most sobering notion is that many volcanologists fear Mt. Rainier may be next. Like Helens, Rainier is classified as an active volcano.  Washington has five major, active volcanoes: Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Baker, Mt. Adams, Glacier Peak and Mt. Rainier.

Mt. Rainier towers over Tacoma & Seattle

Mt. St. Helens may be the 'Queen of the Ring', but the clear 'King of the Ring' is Rainier.  All of these volcanoes are categorized as "stratovolcanoes" - the most explosive type of volcano.  "Stratovolcanos" are the real monsters of the Earth.

They contrast sharply with the more active, but less dangerous volcanoes that are common to the Hawaiian Islands, for example, which rarely build up enough pressure for Mt. St. Helens-like blows, and instead boil away continuously.  The monolithic Rainier is all the more dangerous due to its close proximity to the heavily populated Puget Sound region of Washington.

Towering a dizzying 14,410' into the Pacific Northwestern sky, Rainier stands 3 miles higher than the lowlands that surround it and 1.5 miles higher than the surrounding mountains.  It easily dominates the landscape for 50 miles, and towers over Tacoma and Seattle the way that Mt. Fuji (another "stratovolcano") towers over Tokyo.

Consider this... Mt. St. Helens is about 70 miles from the heart of Tacoma.  Mt. Rainer stands at almost half that distance at just over 40 miles.  The towns of Greenwater, Packwood, Ashford and Elbe all lie (roughly) within 20 miles of the peak... within a radius that saw trees blown to the ground during the Mt. St. Helens eruption.  Assuming a prevailing easterly wind the cities of Yakima and Spokane would lie in the direct path of the heaviest ash-fall, subsequent to any eruption.  The city of Orting and thousands of homes are actually built on top of old lahars (hardened flows of once-molten lava) from prior eruptions.  In fact the entire Puyallup River Valley - all the way to the Port of Tacoma - is known to have been experienced 'moderate' lahars (only a little lava?).

In a past eruption - more than 5,600 years in the past - the entire Northeastern face of Mount Rainier was blown away.  This phenomenal eruption is thought to have been one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history, and dwarfed the Mt. St. Helens eruption in comparison.

Over the last 200 years 4 of the 5 volcanoes here in Washington have experienced significant eruptions: Glacier Peak, 1800's (exact date unknown); Mt. Rainier, 1840's (exact date unknown, and possibly again in 1882); Mt. Baker , 1870; Mt. St. Helens, 1980.  It is believed that Mt. Adams has not erupted for more than 1,000 years, but like Rainier and the others, it is still on the 'active' list.

How 'Active' is 'Active'

Our side of the infamous "Ring of Fire"

Exactly what sort of volcanic activity characterizes these slow-to-blow "stratovolcanic" monsters?

The U.S. Geological Society describes the signs of volcanic activity at the multiple craters atop Mt. Rainier in this excerpt from their website:

"The shallow floors of these [Mt. Rainier's] craters are filled with snow and ice, but the raised rims are snow-free year-round because of high winds and because much of the ground is still hot.  Steam or warm mist, at or just below boiling temperature, rises from the crater rims in many areas and has melted an intricate system of caves into the base of the crater-filling ice.  On calm days, a faint odor of sulfur can also be smelled.  The hot ground, steam, and sulfur smell, as well as the little-eroded shape of the summit craters attest to Rainier's recent activity."

"There is nothing to suggest that volcanic activity has ended at Mount Rainier.  Mount Rainier will surely erupt again, and this will affect people who live in the surrounding areas or who visit Mount Rainier National Park.  Experience at other volcanoes indicates that renewed eruptions will likely be preceded by weeks or months of small earthquakes centered beneath the volcano.  These earthquakes can be accompanied by swelling or other changes in the shape of the volcano, as well as changes in ground temperatures and the amount and type of gas released from the volcano."

"An eruption would probably begin with small steam blasts located at the summit, but could escalate in size and intensity, perhaps leading to a release of new magma (hot, molten rock).  Depending on the amount of magma released, the eruptions could have relatively minor effect on the surrounding area or could produce large, destructive floods and debris flows, affecting areas far from the volcano.  The shaking by earthquakes or explosions will also dislodge masses of unstable rock; the resulting rockslides could damage Park facilities. Particularly large landslides could also create destructive, far-traveling debris flows."

Please take a few minutes to visit the website of the Washington Emergency Management Division
of the Washington Military Department.  Read their special coverage as they look back on Mt. St. Helens

Mount Rainier Seismicity Website               USGS Online Glossary