"Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!"
David Johnston's voice crackled over the radio link from Coldwater Observation Post, north of Mount St. Helens, on the clear Sunday morning of May 18, 1980. Seconds later, the government volcanologist was engulfed in the volcano's gigantic lateral blast. Other people died that day (including three more geologists), but for me David's death hit the closest to home—he was a co-worker of mine at the U.S. Geological Survey offices in the San Francisco Bay area. He had many friends and a bright future, and when "Vancouver," the temporary USGS base in Vancouver, Washington, became a permanent institution, it took his name to honor him.
Johnston's death, I remember, was a shock to his colleagues. Not just because he had been so alive and so young . . . the mountain had seemed to be cooperating that spring.
Mount St. Helens Background and Eruption
Mount St. Helens was long known to be a threatening volcano, having last erupted in 1857. Dwight Crandall and Donal Mullineaux of the USGS, as early as 1975, had pegged it as the most likely of the Cascade Range volcanoes to erupt, and they urged a program of regular monitoring and civic preparations. So when the mountain awoke on March 20, 1980, the scientific community did too.
The state of the art was pushed—sensors were put in place all around the peak that broadcast their readings to data-logging computers many kilometers away from the foul gases and shuddering ground. Megabytes of clean data were gathered, and accurate maps of the volcano, compiled from laser-ranging measurements, were turned out in mere days. What is routine practice today was brand-new then. The Mount St. Helens crew gave brown-bag seminars to rapt crowds at the USGS offices in the Bay area. It seemed that we had a handle on the volcano's pulse, that authorities could be alerted with hours or days of notice, to hold orderly evacuations and save lives.
But Mount St. Helens erupted in a way that no one planned for, and 56 people plus David Johnston died that fiery Sunday. His body, like those of many others, was never found.
Mount St. Helens on the Web
There are lots of Web sites that touch on this story; I think that two stand out. The USGS's huge Mount St. Helens site at the Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory has a thorough scientific history before, during, and after the blast, and a survey of the continuing program to watch the subtle breathing of the peak they call "MSH" in its temporary repose. Poke around the photo gallery, too.
The other great site was on the Vancouver newspaper site columbian.com, which mounted an archive of the eruption as it affected the region. Contemporary news stories, early legends from the volcano region, personal tales of bravery and suffering, the aftermath and the healing were all recounted here. In 2008, all of that was gone.
The Mount St. Helens Legacy
The research continued. The methods first tested at Mount St. Helens were deployed and advanced in later years and later eruptions at El Chichón in 1982, at Mount Spurr and at Kilauea, and more volcanologists died: on Unzen in 1991, on Galeras in 1993.
In 1991 the dream came to fruition spectacularly at one of the century's largest eruptions, at Pinatubo in the Philippines. There the authorities evacuated the mountain and prevented thousands of deaths. The Johnston Observatory has a good story on the events that led to this triumph, and the program that made it possible. Science served civic authority again at Rabaul in the South Pacific and Ruapehu in New Zealand. David Johnston's death was not in vain.
PS: Eerily enough, there is another David Johnston dealing with volcanoes today, in New Zealand. Here's an article of his on how people respond to the threat of eruption.