The Photographer Who Died Protecting The Closest Photos Of The Mt. St. Helens Eruption

Updated August 14, 2019 142.8k views

On May 18, 1980, the eruption of Mount St. Helens became the most destructive volcano eruption in the history of the United States. Photographer Robert Landsburg was documenting the changing landscape only a few miles from the summit at the time, located in the direct path of the pyroclastic flow - an enormous cloud of ash and hot gas spewed out by the volcano. Knowing he wouldn't be able to escape in time, Landsburg made every effort to ensure his film would survive even if he wouldn't.Article Image

Countless observers captured images of the eruption that day, taken from the sky or on the ground, miles away. Landsburg's photos were the only surviving images from inside the catastrophe and close to the summit, giving the world an otherwise inaccessible perspective of the eruption. His dedication to preserving his photographs may have helped scientists learn more about the volcano and eruption, possibly providing data that could come in handy when Mount St. Helens inevitably erupts again.

Scientists Watched As Pressure Built Below Mount St. Helens

At the beginning of March, researchers at the University of Washington began studying the seismic activity around Mount St. Helens using brand new equipment. Earthquakes below the mountain usually signal a possible eruption in the near future, and since seismic activity in the area seemed to be building, scientists believed an eruption was a real possibility. They continued to monitor small earthquakes throughout the month, and by March 25, they registered 4.0 earthquakes occurring three times every hour. 

On March 27, a 250-foot wide crater appeared on the top of the mountain as steam burst out and began spraying into the air, reaching heights of 6,000 feet. Small eruptions of steam and debris continued for several weeks, and researchers could soon see a bulge forming on the north side of the volcano. Clearly, magma and pressure were building inside. Scientists knew Mount St. Helens was on the verge of eruption; the only thing they didn't know was when it would happen.

Article ImageLandsburg's Gut Told Him Something Big Was About To Happen

Born in Seattle in 1931, Landsburg grew up in the Pacific Northwest around the beauty of the forests and the Cascade mountains, known for the many active volcanoes hiding under snow-capped peaks. As a 48-year-old freelance photographer, he was based out of Portland but traveled frequently to Mount St. Helens that spring, about 70 miles away.

Landsburg completed several hiking trips around the area during April, observing the erupting steam and the bulge growing on the side of the volcano. He made his way to several different areas and different heights to find the best vantage points, interested in what was going on inside. Camping nearby on May 17, Landsburg noted in his journal, "Feel right on the verge of something." Rather than fearing what might happen if the volcano's eruptions became threatening, he decided to stick around the area, continue exploring, and capture a few more shots.

Mount St. Helens Erupted With More Force Than Scientists ImaginedArticle Image

Landsburg woke early the morning of the eruption and traveled to a spot four miles away from the summit. Meanwhile, USGS volcanologist David Johnston was six miles north, monitoring the seismographic equipment. At 8:30 am, Johnston's equipment registered a magnitude 5.1 earthquake below the volcano; the moment researchers expected would mean Mount St. Helens would erupt. In his final radio transmission, Johnston could be heard yelling, "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!"

At the same time, aerial surveyors Keith and Dorothy Stoffel and photographers Keith Ronnholm and Gary Rosenquist, who were about 11 miles away, witnessed the entire side of the volcano collapsing. Rocks and dirt sped down the mountain in a landslide that reached speeds of 300 miles per hour. Only about four miles away, Landsburg had his camera mounted on a tripod while he photographed Mount St. Helens falling apart. Anyone with a clear sight of the volcano knew the moment of eruption had finally arrived.

The top of Mount St. Helens released a blast 500 times more powerful than the atomic device used on Hiroshima, instantly wiping out anything within eight miles. Trees that stood for more than a century fell with their trunks all aligned in the same direction. Even those areas that were far enough away not to be leveled by the blast suffered a complete loss of life.

Instead of erupting upwards in the scientists' expected scenario, which wouldn't have caused as much damage, Mount St. Helens erupted laterally, meaning the ash and gas released by the volcano traveled outward horizontally. A larger area suffered as a result, as ash scattered across several states, wiping 200 homes and roads up to 185 miles away. While Ronnholm, Rosenquist, and the Stoffels were able to escape with their film and their lives, Johnston and Landsburg weren't so lucky.
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Landsburg Spent His Final Moments Ensuring His Film Would Survive For Others To See

Through his camera, Landburg watched the side of Mount St. Helens fall away and the monstrous cloud of hot gas and ash of the volcano's pyroclastic flow barrel towards him at more than 100 miles per hour. He knew he wouldn't be able to outrun the destruction. Until the last possible moment, he kept snapping photographs; of the ash raining down, of the quickly darkening sky, of the giant cloud towering over the trees and headed in his direction.

When he knew he was out of time, Landsburg wound his film back into its case. He put the camera in its bag, the bag into his backpack, and then lay on the ground with his backpack below him as ash and magma rained down. He hoped to shield his camera and its precious film with his body, giving his life to save his last photographs.

Seventeen days later, searchers discovered Landsburg's body around three miles west of Mount St. Helens crater near Sheep Canyon. Buried under the ash, it was determined he suffered asphyxiation, but his efforts to protect his film were successful. National Geographic published his photographs in an issue in January 1981, celebrating Landsburg's bravery and creating his legacy. Although light leaks and heat damaged the film slightly, the terrifying yet scientifically compelling scene Landburg captured was clear.

Landsburg's Legacy Lives OnArticle Image

Landsburg was among the 57 people who perished in the Mount St. Helens eruption and one of several photographers who lost their lives, but instead of reacting to his impending demise with fear, he accepted his fate and decided to ensure his life and his work would mean something to others. With the help of National Geographic, the images Landsburg protected reached thousands of people who shared his story and reflected on his bravery. Because the eruption ruined the film of other photographers and journalists who found themselves too close and lost their lives, Landsburg's images became the only to survive an encounter with the summit.

His images may also be some of the closest any photographer has ever come to a volcano's pyroclastic flow. Although many people picture slow-moving lava when thinking of erupting volcanoes, the pyroclastic flow is much more destructive. Thick with suffocating ash and temperatures in the hundreds or thousands of degrees, it is this kind of volcanic eruption which wiped out most of Pompeii and took countless lives in history's most devastating eruptions.

Capturing such images gave scientists a first-hand account of the destructive cloud and showcased the movement of pyroclastic flow. Although Landsburg's name and final photographs may no longer be as well known as they once were, the story of his determination in protecting his images in order to share them with others should be remembered, especially since Mount St. Helens may one day erupt again.