A Photographer’s Story: What It Was Like Being Up in the Air Watching Mount St. Helens Explode

Posted by photographer Brad Zucroff, a member of the United Press International friends:

Forty years ago today, at exactly 08:32 a.m. PDT, Mount St. Helens exploded, directly killing 57 people, changing the lives of thousands, and changing the landscape of the Pacific Northwest forever. The volcano’s explosion has been estimated at the force of 24 million sticks of dynamite. Everything, natural or artificial, within an 8 mile radius was ether vaporized, obliterated or carried away. About 20 minutes after the initial explosion, this was the view through a 35mm f/2 lens on a motorized Nikon F out the missing door of the Bell 206 I was flying in as a staff photographer for United Press International, as we initially approached the volcano from the southwest.

I covered this story from the beginning, through the explosion, and the aftermath, starting with the first small earthquakes in mid-March, signaling what geologists thought might be the the movement of magma up the dormant volcano. On March 20, a shallow magnitude 4.2 earthquake centered below the volcano’s north flank signaled the volcano’s return from 123 years of hibernation. Over the next six weeks, the volcano built itself into the inevitable explosion.

About two weeks before the explosion, as the north side of the volcano began to bulge, I had put a helicopter company at Boeing field near downtown Seattle on a retainer to be ready to fly a Bell Jet Ranger with the door off on 10 minutes notice. Boy, did UPI HQ in NYC, renown for its shoestring budgets, have a cow over that one.

That 10 minutes is the amount of time it would take me to drive from my apartment on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill to Boeing field. Over time we got to know many of the locals along the Toutle River valley, and especially Harry Truman the owner of the Spirit Lake Lodge next to a beautiful lake at the foot of the volcano. Crusty old Harry had decided he was not going to evacuate when that time came. Three days before the the blast, the USGS and authorities banned all press from a huge zone, which looking back probably should have been bigger… as it turned out, all the people directly killed were outside the no-go zone.

One photographer, Reid Blackburn, shooting for National Geographic, was killed on a ridge 12 miles away from the volcano. That day, the USGS and US Parks people took a small pool of writers/photogs to see Harry one last time. When we arrived at the Lodge the north side of the volcano was now bulging ominously. Inside, the lodge was shaking from earthquakes continuously, it was like an old-time fun house, and the the sulphur odor was awful. After about 20 minutes, we all started looking at each other, and decided it was time to get the hell out. It was obvious something was going to happen in the next couple of days… or next couple of minutes.

As a nice May spring day began on Sunday the 18th, I was jarred awake by a phone call at about 8:30am. It was John Davidson, a photographer for the Everett Herald, who heard the volcano explode 150 miles away while sitting on his south facing front porch right on Puget Sound in Everett. He said three words, “the mountain blew.”

I called the chopper pilot, put on some clothes and drove to Boeing Field. My camera gear was already loaded with film, different focal length lenses on five different camera bodies, and a bag of extra film (remember that stuff?) were already in the trunk of my car. As I arrived at the helicopter company, the turbine was just up to temp, and me and all my gear jumped into the chopper and off we went. I strapped in and put on my headset comms with the pilot as we flew there.

We got there about 15 minutes later. It was nuts. He had hired another pilot as a spotter because we knew the airspace would be crowded, and it was. I told the pilot to go as close as he felt safe… since this was shot with a 35mm wide angle, we were pretty close. Probably too close. As we were flying around the volcano around the ash cloud, the lightning made from the violent gasses coming from the volcano was hitting our chopper quite a few times. What I saw from the chopper that day – the ash coming from the mountain, the pyroclastic flows, the mud flows from the melting snow down the Toutle River, taking everything in its path – bridges, homes, trees, heavy logging equipment and vehicles, is something I’ll never forget.

It was a pretty crazy day.

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