Review: Olson's 'Eruption' a vivid account of human cost of Mount St. Helens blast

Mount St. Helens erupts on March 30, 1980. On May 18, 1980, it erupted again, with an explosive force greater than that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Mount St. Helens erupts on March 30, 1980. On May 18, 1980, it erupted again, with an explosive force greater than that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Published April 28, 2016

At 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington state erupted with approximately 1 ½ times the explosive force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The blast that Sunday morning blew the top 1,313 feet off the mountain and sent a dense smoke and ash plume 80,000 feet into the sky.

Hurtling down the mountainside at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour came hot ash, pumice, trees, lava blocks, snow, glacier ice, thick mud, soil and "boulders as big as cars." The "blast cloud" obliterated an area four times larger than Washington, D.C., killing people 13 miles from the volcano's summit and causing one of the largest landslides in recorded history.

Fifty-seven people perished that morning — either blown off the hillsides, crushed by falling trees, felled by toxic gases or burned by searing ash. Half of them were never found.

In his tremendously exciting and informative new work, Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, Steve Olson, also author of Mapping Human History (2003) and Count Down (2005), not only gives us a thrilling piece of action-packed reportage, but also situates his entire story firmly in the political, economic, scientific and historical milieu.

The author delves deeply into the Northwest region's environmental history. He tells us how recent Yale graduate and future father of the U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot, while riding on the Northern Pacific Railway line in 1896, first saw the magnificent fir trees which, writes Olson, "swooped down from the high country like an immense green cloak draped over the land's bare shoulders." To Pinchot, this glorious forest in Washington state extended farther than Yosemite's redwoods or "the vast pineries of northern Europe."

Olson recounts how Frederick Weyerhaeuser, a son of German immigrants who grew up in Illinois in the late 1800s, went on to become a lumber tycoon in Washington state by 1900. His company, writes Olson, headed by grandson George Weyerhaeuser in 1980, had become "the largest wood-products business in the world," richer than Boeing with "a higher market valuation than Ford, Mobil, or Xerox." The company owned 6 million acres, "an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined."

This vast land ownership, Olson informs us, posed a serious problem in 1980 not only for Weyerhaeuser but for the general area, since ominous earthquakes and gases had been emanating from Mount St. Helens, a volcano that abutted Weyerhaeuser property. Although geologists maintained that the area around Mount St. Helens was unsafe, government officials, including Gov. Ricky Lee Ray, were hesitant to prevent access to the trees, thereby harming revenue from the lucrative Weyerhaeuser industry. Even the loggers, who worked under the threatening shadow of the volcano, didn't want to leave their well-paying jobs.

Olson relates how Ray not only neglected to extend the danger zone and erect roadblocks to keep out curious tourists, but how she even encouraged whiskey-loving octogenarian Harry Truman, who lodged at the volcano's very base, to stay where he was. In a letter to Truman, she praised his "independence … a fine example for all of us. … We could use a lot more of that kind of thinking."

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

On that Sunday morning in May, Truman was one of the first of the 57 victims of the Mount St. Helens blast.

A number of people farther away from the mountain did manage to survive by covering themselves with tarps or wet clothing. Some crawled to safety. From available scientific and recorded information, Olson heartbreakingly reconstructs the deaths of the more unfortunate ones. Geologist Dave Johnston, who was filling in that day for another scientist at the Goldwater II observation station, was flung with his trailer and his Ford Pinto "across the top of the ridge as easily as someone would brush a fly," never to be found under the flowing debris in the valley beyond.

The author relates horrific stories of victims being asphyxiated or burned to death, like photographer Reid Blackburn, whose Volvo, windows blasted out, filled with burning ash as he tried to drive away.

Young John and Christy Killian were at Fawn Lake, where they were caught in the blast cloud as it careened down the valley. Christy was immediately torn to pieces by wood, stone, water and hot ash. Several months later she was identified when her left arm was found with her wedding band on her finger.

Her husband, who was fishing on the lake in his rubber raft, was picked up by the rolling blast and propelled to his death "through the liquid air."

Olson's dramatic, emotionally moving Eruption is ultimately a book about humanity's scientific relationship to the natural world: How can we better understand and prepare for the earth's threats in the future?

But you will not stop thinking about those poor victims.