May 18, 2023

The Eruption of Mount St. Helens

The Eruption of Mount St. Helens

May 18, 1980. After a century of silence, Mount St. Helens, a dormant volcano in the scenic Washington countryside comes to life.


Cold Open

It’s just before 8:30 AM on May 18th, 1980 at an observation post just six miles away from Mount St. Helens.

A lanky, bearded man with a crop of golden hair sits on a metal chair propped up at the edge of a stony ridge.

As the first rays of sunlight brighten the jagged peak of Mount St. Helens, thirty-year-old David Johnston scribbles intently in the notebook on his lap, recording his observations about the mountain before him.

At over 8,000 feet, Mount St. Helens towers over the surrounding national forest. For over a century, the volcano has been dormant. But two months ago, that started to change. In recent weeks, Mount St. Helens has been riddled with small eruptions and earthquakes. Some scientists think that the volcano is slowly stirring back to life; David is one of them. A volcanologist for the United States Geological Survey, he’s one of the many scientists monitoring the mountain’s reawakening. 

As David closes his notebook, he looks up at the snow-capped peak of the volcano. His eyes are drawn to the unusual bulge on the north face of Mount St. Helens. It’s the result of magma being pushed up within the peak, a concerning sign that an eruption may be near. The observation post David is manning has been set up to keep tabs on the rate at which that bulge is growing.

Leaning back in his chair, David yawns softly. He woke up at the crack of dawn to measure the bulge and the early start is beginning to tire him. Balling up his fists, David rubs his eyes drowsily. But just as he starts to nod off… a quiet rumbling jerks him awake.

David’s eyes dart toward Mount St. Helens and his jaw drops — the north face of the mountain is vibrating. For a moment, he doesn’t trust his eyes, squinting to get a closer look. Then, all of a sudden, the swollen bulge on the mountain starts to slide down the side of the volcano, sparking an enormous landslide.

David knows that he’s supposed to be safe. The observation post is meant to be too far away to sustain any damage. So, David doesn’t even think about fleeing, all he worries about is alerting his colleagues in the nearby town of Vancouver. Springing to his feet, David grabs his radio and screams: “Vancouver, Vancouver, This is it!” 

Those will be the last known words of David Johnston. As Mount St. Helens spews lava and ash, several rescue helicopters will fly over the ridge where the observation post once stood, but they will find no trace of it, or of David. The blast will be more powerful than anticipated, devastating even areas thought to be safe and leaving only bare rock and uprooted trees in its wake. By its end, the eruption of Mount St. Helens will claim the lives of David and fifty-six others and cause billions of dollars of damage, becoming the worst volcanic incident in American history on May 18th, 1980.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 18th, 1980: The Eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Act One

It’s a bright morning in early April 1980 outside a rickety lodge at the edge of Spirit Lake, just north of Mount St. Helens.

A few feet away from the crumbling three-story building, reporter John Gurnsey gazes through dense clusters of tall pine trees at the snow-covered peak of Mount St. Helens reaching high into the clear blue sky. The trees sway in the sunlight as a gentle wind picks up. It looks like a perfect spring day. But John knows that this idyllic picture is misleading.

Deep beneath the surface of the mountain, the tremendous plates that make up the earth’s crust are shifting. As the plates heave and twist, the ground above trembles. In the years between 1975 and 1980, there were less than fifty earthquakes on Mount St. Helens. But, in just the third week of March 1980 alone, there were over a hundred. This increased activity alarmed the scientists who have been studying the mountain, and now fear a potential eruption.

Heeding the experts’ warnings, the government established a “red zone” around the mountain. If Mount St. Helens erupts, everything in this area will be reduced to rubble. As the quakes grow more frequent, the people living in the red zone have been evacuated to safer areas. Everyone except one resident who refuses to leave — a man John is eager to interview.

John walks over to the front door of the lodge. He has barely raised his fist to knock when the door swings open, and a gruff voice tells him to come on in. When John steps inside, he is greeted by an old man with a cap sitting askew on his head. Harry Truman is the eighty-three-year-old owner of the Mount St. Helens Lodge, and the only person refusing to evacuate.

Harry quickly takes John on a tour of the lodge. Many news channels have visited Harry in the past few weeks, and John quickly learns something all of them must have realized — you don’t interview Harry Truman, you simply listen to him.

As he walks briskly through cluttered rooms, Harry tells John that the lodge has been his home for over fifty years. He pauses at a collage of pictures on one of the walls. Pointing at the photograph of a woman in a wide-brimmed hat, Harry’s voice grows tender. He says that this is his late wife, Edna. For decades, the pair ran the lodge together — renting cabins and boats to visitors. But after Edna died three years ago, Harry mostly retired. The lodge is falling apart now and the only visitors seem to be the sixteen cats who now live there with him.

For a few minutes, Harry stares longingly at the picture on the wall. When he turns back toward the reporter, the old man’s eyes are moist. John suddenly feels a pang of sorrow for him, but before he can say anything, Harry offers him his drink of choice — coke mixed with a generous splash of bourbon. John politely declines, but Harry makes one for himself anyway.

After making the drink, Harry leafs through a thick pile of his mail. The news channels have made him into something of a local celebrity. He shakes his head as he sees letters addressed to him by schoolchildren, begging him to leave the lodge before Mount St. Helens erupts.

Harry makes himself a second drink, and the men settle down in the living room. John asks Harry once again if he would consider leaving the lodge. Harry just chuckles, deep wrinkles framing his pale face. Taking off his cap to reveal a patch of scanty white hair, he says:

"JOHN: “No I’m not going to leave, damn right I’m not going to leave. I’m going to stay here. If I left - it’d kill me. If I left this place and lost my home, I’d die in a week. I couldn’t live. So I’m like that old captain and by God, I’m going down with the ship.”

As the interview comes to an end, Harry poses for a photograph outside the lodge — he grins into the camera, holding up his glass of coke and bourbon. In the background, the serene white peak of Mount St. Helens towers over him.

True to his word, Harry Truman will never leave his beloved lodge, not when stronger quakes rattle the ground on which it is built, not even when a series of small explosions will leave behind a 200-foot-wide crater at Mount St. Helens’ summit. Harry will ardently believe that his lodge is too far from the angry mountain to be affected by any potential eruption. But just a month later, Mount St. Helens will prove Harry wrong.

Act Two

It’s around 8:15 AM on the morning of May 18th, 1980.

A small, single-engine plane is flying toward the crater of Mount St. Helens.

In the front seat of the small craft sits a blue-eyed woman gazing out the window in awe. Dorothy Stoffel is struck by the sight of the enormous, deep hole at the summit of the snow-capped mountain. In the seat behind Dorothy sits her husband Keith who is also staring out the window, transfixed. The Stoffels are both geologists who live in Spokane, Washington, but they made the journey west to witness this awakening volcano.

Mount St. Helens has been showing signs of pre-eruptive activity like earthquakes and minor explosions. It’s all being monitored regularly — and scientists still can’t say with certainty when or even ifit will erupt. But the Stoffels didn’t want to pass up the chance to see an active volcano up close, so they chartered a small plane to fly them to Mount St. Helens.

As Dorothy peers out of the window, she sees a lone red pickup truck winding along the road which cuts through a sea of pine trees. She can’t help but feel a little disappointed by the sight. Her surroundings are beautiful and tranquil. As a scientist, Dorothy hoped to see some action when they were up in the air — but Mount St. Helens is so calm that she’s convinced they’re too late; the volcano must already be dormant again. But, just ten minutes later, she realizes that by mother nature’s clock, they are exactly on time.

As the plane gently circles over the summit’s crater, Dorothy notices growing clouds of steam rising from the mountain. Not thinking much of this, Dorothy continues watching unconcerned. Then, Dorothy sees something that makes her grab her camera in excitement. The ice from the glacier that is perched on the wall of the crater is falling into the cavernous depths of the mountain. She thinks:“Oh, finally, a little activity!” But what Dorothy thinks is a “little activity” is actually a magnitude 5.1 earthquake shaking the moody volcano to life.

Just as Dorothy snaps a second picture, an enormous fracture opens up directly below the plane, cleaving the mountain apart. It looks like someone is slicing Mount St. Helens in half. Dorothy and Keith watch in shock as the north half of the mountain vibrates vigorously; while the south half remains absolutely still.

Before the couple can make sense of what's happening, the north half of Mount St. Helens ripples, churns, and then starts sliding away in one tremendous fluid block — three billion cubic yards of ice and rock hurtling down the mountain in what will be the largest landslide in recorded history.

The pilot of the plane doesn’t understand the danger this poses to the flimsy craft that’s only 500 feet above the crater of an erupting volcano. Tipping the wing of the plane so the couple can look down, he calmly tells the geologists to take more pictures. As Keith photographs chunks of the mountain falling away, huge volumes of steam start pouring out of the north face of the volcano.

The plane levels out and climbs just a bit to clear the summit when Mount St. Helens erupts. Inside the aircraft, Dorothy, Keith, and the pilot don't feel or hear anything. They only see a thick, gray cloud mushroom above the disintegrating mountain. In a matter of seconds, the blast cloud has billowed to an enormous size.

Dorothy sits inside the plane terrified. As the cloud lifts off Mount St. Helens, she can actually see inside the erupting volcano. Lightning generated by static electricity illuminates the crater. Surging forward at 300 miles per hour, the blast cloud threatens to engulf the plane. And with an internal temperature of 600 degrees Fahrenheit, it will surely incinerate the plane, and everyone in it.

With the engine already at full throttle, the pilot steers the plane into a nose-dive to gain speed. To escape the cloud hurtling toward them, he turns the plane south, and they make a speedy escape. Soon after, the aircraft in Portland, with everyone on board safe and sound.

But others are not so fortunate. The eruption of Mount St. Helens will cause 57 people to lose their lives, among them Harry Truman in his lodge, and David Johnston is his observation post. Scientists will later declare that the blast on Mount St. Helens generated about 500 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II. Tremors from the blast will be felt hundreds of miles away and the ash spewed by the mountain will darken the skies of nearby cities. But after the eruption, it will at least seem like the worst is over. But, in actuality, Mount St. Helens will have much more in store.

Act Three

It’s the early morning of May 25th, 1980 on Mount St. Helens, one week after it erupted.

Michael Lienau wanders the devastated slopes of the treacherous volcano. He’s part of a five-member film crew that ventured inside the destruction zone to capture the aftermath of the eruption. But what was supposed to be a short day trip has gone horribly awry.

The helicopter that dropped the crew inside the zone was scheduled to pick them up at a designated spot that evening. But the group missed the rendezvous. The compasses they were counting on to navigate the mountain stopped working because of the magnetic particles in the swirling volcanic dust around them. For the last couple of days, the crew has been wandering through the dystopian landscape directionless — with very little food, barely any shelter, and almost no hope.

Michael is a twenty-year-old cameraman; the youngest of the group. He stares desolately at the compass in his hand; the metal needle only spinning wildly across the dial. Sighing, he sits down on a jagged tree trunk that's been felled by the landslide — a reminder of the thousand-year-old forests that were flattened in mere seconds.

Michael can’t bear to look at the destruction; he squeezes his eyes shut. But that’s no good either. Without the birds, animals, and insects that bring the forest to life; a deathly silence hangs in the air.

But a loud exclamation suddenly cuts through the quiet. Michael’s eyes shoot open, and his gaze follows the direction of his colleague’s outstretched arm. Just a few miles away, brilliant flashes of lava dance above the summit of Mount St. Helens. Michael’s heart sinks; it’s another eruption, and if this is anything like the one that shook the mountain a week ago, Michael knows they will all be dead in seconds. The twenty-year-old sinks to his knees and clasps his hands together in prayer, fervently whispering: “God, help!”.

But fortunately, Michael and all the other members of the film crew will survive this disaster. A few days after the second eruption, a rescue helicopter will pick them up and bring them to safety. The mountain’s most recent volcanic episode will not be nearly as devastating as its first.

And just a few weeks later, small islands of plant and animal life will spring up in the desolation around the smoldering volcano. Nature will reclaim the land much faster than scientists will predict. And though for the next three decades, Mount St. Helens will continue to display signs of activity, in 2008, the volcano will enter a dormant period.

After this tragic and violent event, Mount St. Helens will continue to be popular among climbing enthusiasts; but as human activity near the volcano grows, geologists will monitor it even more closely, searching for any signs of activity and working to ensure that no event may inflict the same level of destruction and loss of life caused by the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18th, 1980.


Next on History Daily. May 19th, 1536. After being accused of treason, adultery, and incest, Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, is executed.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Katrina Zemrak.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Rhea Purohit.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.