We're continuing to live-blog Richard Waitt's excellent tome, In the Path of Destruction. Content note for this edition: there's a lot of human and animal death. Volcanic eruptions are exciting, but incredibly dangerous.

 Chapter 9: Devastation

Oh, people. I took a look at this chapter intro, and then promptly went to look at pretty things. It's entitled "Devastation," and that's pretty much what we'll feel when it's over. A lot of the folks we'll meet aren't going to survive.

It starts with a quote from Gerry Martin, the ham radio operator who was on the ridge behind Coldwater II. He saw the landslide and blast overrun David Johnston. He had just enough time to radio, "It's gonna get me, too. I can't get out of here."

Right in the gut. Every time.

Have your tissues handy.


Several people radioed out from within the blast zone. We have their last words.

David Johnston: Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!

*brief pause*

Johnston: Vancouver! Is the transmitter on?

And then he was gone.


The book has the whole conversation between Gerry Martin and other ham radio operators. He started transmitting with the earthquake. It's a brief conversation. In less than two minutes, he knows the blast is coming for him. Less than ten seconds later, he knows it's too late to flee.

Of the other Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services operators, I'm relieved to report they all survived. Jim Carlson was 18 miles north-northwest of Martin's position. His report five minutes after the start of the eruption is breathtaking:

Jim Carlson: We're on highway 12... and Reade you wouldn't believe it, it's covering an area 15 or 20 miles in length and it's going clean up in the clouds now. Boiling... The whole Green Mountain ridge is obscured.

They don't know yet that Martin didn't survive. They thought he was getting out.


Some photos or notes survived when their photographers did not. One of the people shooting the eruption was Jim Fitzgerald, who was a PhD candidate and member of the AGU. Richard Waitt tells us he got off 19 pictures, stashed his camera - and then he was gone.

The other photographers are Robert Landsburg, Columbia reporter Reid Blackburn, and Ron or Barbara Seibold.

Blackburn's film was destroyed by the heat of the ashcloud. But his notebook was safe in his transmitter case, so we can see that he snapped off several photos of the eruption.

I wish we had all their photos. But seeing some of the last sights they did is incredibly eerie.

Image shows a huge eruption cloud swallowing Mount St. Helens. Image marked as taken at 8:33:47 am

One of the last photographs taken by Jim Fitzgerald, a graduate student in geology at the University of Iowa. He died in the eruption shortly afterward. Image from page 154 of In the Path of Destruction.


We're getting to survivors now. This is good. I like the fact there were survivors to get to.

Bea and Barry Johnston (no relation to David) were supposed to be with Jim Fitzgerald that morning. A fortunate hunger ensured they didn't die with him.

Barry (driving to Spud Mountain): I want breakfast!

Bea: Breakfast?! You never want breakfast. We're gonna miss all the great sunrise pics! (later) We're missing the great sunrise pics!

Barry: Om nom nom!

After breakfast and back on the road, they round a bend and BAM, the mountain is missing. Instead, there's a great gray roiling cloud. They screech to a halt.

Bea (snapping photos): Curses, Barry! We could've had a great view of the eruption! Jim's got a great view!

Shortly afterward, the eruption cloud races toward them.



They do 75 mph on the straightaways. The cloud still gains.

Bea: "We're gonna die!"

Barry: "Jesus! I can't go faster."

Bea thought this would be the last thing they ever saw: that huge, wicked black cloud descending upon them. She just hoped someone would find the photos.

They made it to safety. One of their last photos shows an enormous, world-devouring cloud where the mountain should be. It seems to take up almost the entire sky. They tell firemen that their friend Jim might be trapped, the roads around him buried in ash. They don't know he's dead.


Larry Wilson and Shawn King drove up to the Highway 504 roadblock early in the morning, their Datsun pickup towing a trailer. They contemplate a drive to Spirit Lake despite the closures. Larry, fortunately, decides they should just chill there. They are your typical young dudes, drinking beer for breakfast, washing up in the river, shooting a few photos as Mount St. Helens steams gently in the distance. They start back down, but then people in cars going up the road skid to a stop and start feverishly taking photos. When they look back, the eruption is in progress. They stop, too, and start photographing as the lateral blast speeds toward them.

King (dancing around): "Wow!"

Wilson and King: "We're seeing it!"

Wilson: "Hey, man, that's what they said at Pompeii!"

This is perhaps the sharpest flash of insight in history. The two of them very prudently leap into their truck and flee. I have no idea how, towing a trailer at highway speeds on a twisty mountain road, they didn't crash. They barely scrape around a motorhome blocking the highway. And they make it out, stopping next to Bea and Barry Johnston to watch the blue-green lightning flash in the eruption cloud.


Public Service Announcement: Using the excuse that you're fleeing a volcanic eruption will get you out of a ticket if you are, indeed, fleeing a volcanic eruption.

This is so sad, though, because the man pulled over had three dogs in the back of the pickup. Out in the open, they suffocated on ash.


Eleanor Murphy (watching the eruption from a roadblock): "Oooo, the north side of the mountain fell off."

She was so calm. In a few minutes, she was dead. The blast cloud overran that roadblock. Only the people who had jumped into their cars after a few photos and sped as fast as they could down the highway survived.


This group of campers fleeing down a gravel road passed deer trying to outrun the blast. Poor woodland creatures. They had absolutely no chance.

The campers made it out just ahead of the blast cloud. They were six miles inside the blast zone when it started. The difference between life and death for so many people was the instinct to flee within the first minute.

Photo of my copy of Richard Waitt's In the Path of Destruction, which has a black and white photo of Mount St. Helens erupting.

That's enough death and destruction for this edition. We'll finish this harrowing chapter next time, and then things will get a lot less grim. If you want to get it over with, you can pick up your own copy of In the Path of Destruction here. Purchases through that link help support my blogging, so thank you!