When Mount St. Helens erupted at 8:32 am on May 18, 1980, USGS geologist David Johnston radioed, "This is it!" Seconds later, an avalanche enveloped Johnston's research station. From miles away, radio operator Jerry Martin said, "It's gonna get me, too." Johnston and Martin were among 57 people who perished in the eruption.
For months, the volcano showed signs of activity. Scientists predicted an eruption, but what happened on May 18, 1980, was much worse than any expected. At 8:32 am, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake shook the mountain. Within seconds, the quake triggered the largest landslide in recorded history. The entire north face of the mountain tumbled, taking out everything in its path for miles. The eruption melted glaciers and triggered massive mudflows which swept away cars, bridges, houses, and people.
Mount St. Helens sent ash 80,000 feet into the atmosphere, creating a massive ash cloud which covered the Pacific Northwest. People who witnessed the eruption described it as "hell on Earth" and like "being cremated." Many of the survivors thought they were safe miles away from the volcano, but quickly learned they were in the path of a frightening natural disaster.
One Survivor Said The Eruption Felt Like Being Cremated Alive
A logger named Jim Scymanky was more than 12 miles away from Mount St. Helens when it erupted. Moments later, Scymanky's co-worker, Jose Dias, ran up to tell a group of loggers about the eruption. In seconds, Scymanky heard "a horrible, crashing, crunching, grinding sound."
"Then up in the trees I saw the top of a tall one jiggle and fall, and another nearer, then another," Scymanky said. "Rocks zinged through the woods, bouncing off trees."
Darkness fell instantly, and heat stifled the loggers. "Suddenly I could see nothing," Scymanky told geologist Richard Waitt. "I'd been knocked down and my hard hat blown off. It got hot right away, then scorching hot and impossible to breathe. The air had no oxygen, like being trapped underwater... I was being cremated, the pain unbearable."
Dave Crocket Described It As 'Hell On Earth'
TV photographer Dave Crocket watched the eruption with a camera in his hand, just 10 miles from the mountain. While recording, Crocket said, "My god, this is hell. I just can't describe it. It's pitch black. This is hell on Earth."
Crocket continued to speak as he looked for an escape route. "I can't see a thing. I keep walking, if only I could do something. If only I could do something instead of just sitting here." After a moment, Crocket added, "I got the wrong attitude here, it's got [to] be something to tell my grandkids about."
Two Photographers Escaped The Ash And Mud By Mere Minutes
Photographers Vern Hodgson and Bernadette Chaussee set up a tripod to photograph Mount St. Helens on a ridge 17 miles away from the mountain. "I had just set up my camera, and there it went," he said. Snapping furiously, Hodgson ended up with 16 photos in 45 seconds, but eventually realized he and his friend were in danger.
Hodgson recalls that if he'd been younger and more foolish, he probably would have stayed up there.
Instead, the photographers leaped into their van and sped away. Minutes later, a massive cloud of black ash surrounded them and mud began to blanket the road.
Bruce Nelson Claimed His Mouth Filled With Ash And The Temperature Reached 500ºF
Bruce Nelson was camping 13 miles away from Mount St. Helens on the morning of May 18, 1980. While fishing on the Green River, Nelson caught sight of an enormous black cloud to the south. Just seconds later, the ash surrounded Nelson, filling his mouth.
Nelson recalls, "I started to climb through fallen trees. But it got extremely hot. I'm a baker who works with huge ovens. This was five or six hundred degrees Fahrenheit."