A Look Back: Reporting Mount St. Helens Eruption 37 Years Ago

May 18, 2017

Mount St. Helens erupted 37 years ago on May 18, 1980.
Credit Stuart Rankin / Flickr Creative Commons

Thirty-seven years ago today Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington erupted in a gigantic explosion that killed nearly 60 people and injured scores of others, as well as causing millions of dollars of damage. 

Boise State Public Radio reporter Norm Gunning experienced the event firsthand as an assignment editor at KOIN TV, the CBS affiliate in Portland, just 60 miles south. Through archived audio quotes, Gunning walks us through the events of the day and how his colleagues and station covered the breaking news at the time.

During the year of 1980, the mountain had several lesser eruptions starting at the end of March, but the big one came at 8:32 a.m. on May 18.  Even though some kind of eruption was expected, the intensity came as a complete surprise.

Portland State University Geology professor Dr. Leonard Palmer went on the air in the KOIN TV newsroom after returning from a flight over the mountain. He described this scene:

“The entire top of the mountain, of course, is blowing consistently, probably since about 8:30 this morning when the first eruptions occurred, and blowing about two miles above the crest of the mountain.”

Before the eruption, St. Helens had been a picture-perfect, snow-covered peak with the scenic Spirit Lake at its base.  But massive ash and gas flows generated by the eruption rapidly changed the landscape.

“I think what we’re seeing,” Dr. Palmer said from his flight, “is something that would probably be a hot ash fall into Spirit Lake. I think it does not look good for people in that area now.”

It soon became apparent the landscape had changed, and the mountain was a killer.

Major Dave Mullins of the Washington Army National Guard had just returned from a helicopter trip up the Toutle River Valley when he spoke to KOIN reporter Allan Breese:

“And the mud probably is, in some areas, is a quarter-mile wide,” Mullins described. “It’s just taken everything in the valley with it. And we started noticing that the forest on every side was totally lying on the ground, just miles and miles and miles of devastation.”

The effects of the eruption were felt hundreds of miles to the northeast as the airborne ash blocked out the sun.

“It is as dark as night over there, northeast of the erupting Mount St. Helens,” reported KOIN TV anchor Kirk Matthews at the time. “Reports from the scene indicate it’s still pitch dark outside and residents are warned to stay inside.”

The KOIN TV crew and other northwest news media would continue to cover the eruption and its after affects for months and years – a task that sometimes brings an emotional response from reporters to this day.

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