God, I Want to Live!"
Mount St. Helens explodes, spreading death and destruction in the Cascades "Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!" The frantic warning was radioed at precisely 8:31 a.m. on that fateful Sunday by Volcano Expert David Johnston, 30, who had climbed to a monitoring site five miles from Washington State's Mount St. Helens in the snow-capped Cascade Range, 40 miles northeast of Portland, Ore. He wanted to peer through binoculars at an ominous bulge building up below the crater, which had been rumbling and steaming for eight weeks, and report his observations to the U.S. Geological Survey center in Vancouver, Wash.
Seconds after his shouted message, a stupendous explosion of trapped gases, generating about 500 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, blew the entire top off Mount St. Helens. In a single burst St. Helens was transformed from a postcard-symmetrical cone 9,677 ft. high to an ugly flattop 1,300 ft. lower.
Clouds of hot ash made up of pulverized rock were belched twelve miles into the sky. Giant mud slides, composed of melted snow mixed with ash and propelled by waves of superheated gas erupting out of the crater, rumbled down the slopes Hiroshima, crashed through valleys, leaving millions of trees knocked down in rows, as though a giant had been playing pick-up sticks.
At the moment of the explosion David Crockett, 28, a photographer for KOMO-TV in Seattle, stood on a logging road at the base of the mountain. He heard a huge roar and looked up to see a wall of mud rushing toward him. Because of the terrain, the flood divided into two streams that passed on either side of him. Seeking desperately for a way out, Crockett kept moving along the road, speaking into his sound camera to record his impressions of the scene. Said he: "I am walking toward the only light I can see. I can hear the mountain rumble. At this very moment I have to say, 'Honest to God, I believe I am dead.' The ash in my eyes burns my eyes, burns my eyes! Oh dear God, this is hell! It's very, very hard to breathe and very dark. If I could only breathe air. God, just give me a breath! I will try the radio. Mayday! Mayday! Ash is coming down on me heavily. It's either dark or I am dead. God, I want to live!"
Crockett did live; a rescue helicopter plucked him off the mountain ten hours later. But Johnston was never heard from again. His campsite was strewn with boulders, broken tree trunks and ash with the consistency of wet cement. By week's end at least 18 people were known to have died in the eruption; at least 71 were reported missing and feared dead. Among them was Harry Truman, a crusty 84-year-old who lived with 16 cats at a recreation lodge near Spirit Lake, about five miles north of the peak. He had refused to leave weeks ago, he had told national television audiences, because, he said, "no one knows more about this mountain than Harry, and it don't dare blow up on him."
Harry was last seen on Saturday evening, watering his lawn. Today the site of his camp is a steaming mass of mud and water.