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Eruption: Countdown to Catastrophe



Amazon Book Review: EruptionAt 8:32 of a sunny Sunday morning in May 1980, more than a thousand feet disappeared from the top of Mt. St. Helens in a black plume of boiling ash and lightning rising miles into the atmosphere. The mountain was decapitated by the eruption; in an instant a shockwave of pulverized rock and liquefied glaciers leveled miles of old growth forest, displaced lakes, and choked rivers with mud and timber, tearing bridges and buildings from foundations.

57 lives were claimed within minutes, yet the disaster didn't come without warning: the prior two months saw the volcano awaken in a flurry of earthquakes and sooty belches, a fresh crater at the summit, and a massive, growing bulge on the north face that loomed ominously over Spirit Lake and the valleys below. So why was anyone there at all? Steve Olson's Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens examines the forces at work--volcanic, economic, political, and historical--to tell the tale at both geologic and human scales, documenting in thrilling fashion the demise of an iconic landscape and the stories of those who died: who they were, why they were there, and what they saw when the sky fell.

Using images from the book, Olson documents some of the events before and after May 18, 1980. Eruption is a March 2016 selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month in Nonfiction.

 


Eruption: Countdown to Catastrophe

Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

Before 1980, Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington State was an idyllic outdoors playground. At the base of the volcano's northern flank, Spirit Lake was ringed by campgrounds, resorts, and lodges. People from throughout the Pacific Northwest came to the mountain to hike, sail, hunt, ski, climb, and revel in some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

The area around Mount St. Helens was also a working forest. The Weyerhaeuser Company owned most of the land between the volcano and Interstate-5, thirty-five miles to the west, and in 1980 it was cutting the last of its old growth forests around the volcano. Spirit Lake is nestled between the two wooded ridges in the upper left corner of the photograph. The small lake still encircled by trees in the bottom center of the photograph is Fawn Lake.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

On March 27, 1980, after a week of steadily intensifying earthquakes under the mountain, a small crater opened on the top of the volcano and began spewing ash thousands of feet into the air. (In this photograph, the ash has darkened the downwind, left-hand side of the mountain.) One hundred twenty-three years after the mountain's previous eruption, in 1857, Mount St. Helens had reawakened.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

Over the next seven weeks, an ominous bulge appeared on the northern flank of the volcano, growing at an average rate of five feet per day. Geologists warned that the bulge could collapse, causing an avalanche that would slam into Spirit Lake and destroy everything in its path. Here a geologist measures the dimensions of the bulge using an umbrella to shield his instrument from the sun.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

Government officials drew danger zones around the mountain -- a red zone where only scientists and law enforcement personnel could enter, and a blue zone where workers and property owners could enter if they had permission. But the officials did not want to extend the red and blue zones onto Weyerhaeuser property because they did not want to interfere with the company's logging. As a result, the boundaries of the red and blue zones passed less than four miles from the peak of the volcano.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

On Saturday evening, May 17 -- the middle of the first nice weekend after a long, rainy spring -- about two dozen people were situated north of the volcano. The cantankerous octogenarian Harry Truman was in the lodge that he refused to leave on Spirit Lake. Bob Kaseweter and Beverly Wetherald had permission to stay in their cabin a couple of miles down the Toutle River from the lake. Geologist Dave Johnston was monitoring the volcano from an observation post known as Coldwater II; photographer Reid Blackburn was taking photographs from a previous post known as Coldwater I; and volunteer ham radio operator Gerry Martin had driven his motorhome to a clearcut north of Johnston to keep an eye on the mountain and issue warnings if necessary. Several groups were camping in areas they assumed were far enough away from the volcano to be safe.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

Saturday afternoon, several colleagues joined Dave Johnston at Coldwater II to enjoy the last few hours of a warm and sunny day. They took turns photographing each other next to the trailer where the geologists had been living for the past few weeks, which was parked in a clearcut with a good view of the volcano across the Toutle River valley.


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At 8:32 on Sunday morning, May 18, the bulge on the north side of the mountain collapsed. When it did, it released pressure that had been building up inside the volcano for the previous two months. An immense flow of burning hot ash, rocks, and gas swept out of the northern side of Mount St. Helens (on the volcano's far side in this photograph), devastating everything in a fan-shaped wedge covering more than 200 square miles.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

In his car at the Coldwater I observation post, photographer Reid Blackburn was asphyxiated by ash a few seconds after the blast cloud reached him. The bodies of Harry Truman, Bob Kaseweter, Beverly Wetherald, Dave Johnston, and Gerry Martin were never recovered.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

Two Weyerhaeuser employees, John Killian and his wife Christy, were camping at the outlet of Fawn Lake, nine miles away from the volcano (which is just visible in this photograph over the ridgeline). John's body was never recovered, though his family looked for him for years. Christy's body was identified by the wedding ring on her left hand.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

Fifty-seven people died in the eruption of Mount St. Helens, including several who traveled to the area north of the mountain on Sunday morning and others who were camping, working, or sightseeing elsewhere around the mountain. The locations of six of the dead are unknown, and several people who may have been caught in the eruption and never found were not included on the official list of victims.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

After the eruption, the governor of Washington State, Dixy Lee Ray, incorrectly stated that the victims of the eruption had illegally entered the danger zones. But only three of the fifty-seven victims -- Harry Truman, Bob Kaseweter, and Beverly Wetherald -- were inside either the red zone or the blue zone, and the latter two had permission to be there.


Amazon Book Review: Eruption by Steve Olson

Since 1980, Mount St. Helens has gradually rebuilt a lava dome in the center of its crater, around which a fast-moving glacier has formed. The trees swept into Spirit Lake by the eruption still float on its surface, a ghostly log raft driven ceaselessly by the wind. The Johnston Ridge Observatory, named after geologist David Johnston and just over the hill on the right side of this photograph, features a granite memorial to the fifty-seven victims of the eruption.


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