Thirty-four years ago today, on May 18, 1980–like today, also a Sunday–Mt. St. Helens, the most picturesque peak in the Pacific Northwest, exploded in a volcanic eruption of immense magnitude. This event is justifiably very famous, as comparatively few volcanoes have erupted in the continental United States in historic times (the last one before that was Mt. Lassen in 1915), and almost everybody has seen the dramatic film footage of the volcano at one time or another. A total of 57 people lost their lives in the event. Among them was a young geologist, David Johnston, only 30 years old, who had studied the mountain in the weeks before its eruption and made a prediction about the coming eruption, discredited by almost all others, that turned out to be both profound and macabre. Johnston predicted that the mountain, when it did erupt, would explode sideways, in what volcanologists call a lateral blast. This prediction was profound because it turned out to be correct, when most USGS scientists on-site discounted it. It turned out to be macabre because it was exactly this lateral blast that killed Johnston on the morning of May 18.
Johnston was young but most definitely a dedicated professional. He got his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois in geology, after switching his major from journalism. He went on to do his graduate work at the University of Washington and became a specialist in volcanoes. Johnston was not the kind of scientist to sit in a laboratory parsing data. He was out there with boots on the ground, measuring volcanic processes himself, sometimes at considerable risk. He was present at the eruption of Mt. Augustine in Alaska in 1976, and was only narrowly rescued by aircraft in time. After getting his Ph.D. in 1978 he joined the USGS (United States Geological Service), and as ominous seismic activity began to occur around Mt. St. Helens in the spring of 1980 Johnston again volunteered to go into harm’s way. He was the first professional geologist to arrive on the slopes of the mountain in March.
It was obvious to Johnston, and to many others at the USGS, that something huge was coming, but the question was how huge, and what to do about it. On April 30, based on the recommendations of government scientists, Washington Governor Dixy Lee Ray issued an order creating an “exclusion zone” around the mountain, effectively sealing off the area and encouraging those who lived there to leave. One who famously stayed was old timer Harry Truman (no relation to the President), but after April 30 most of the people still in the area were scientists. Johnston was one. He and the others noted that an ominous bulge growing on the north part of the mountain signaled a violent eruption was coming, but where most of the USGS people thought this meant the blast would be directed north, Johnston warned a lateral blast was likely. Still, he did not want to leave his work. He was stationed at an observation post called Coldwater II, about 6 miles from the summit of Mt. St. Helens, where he was monitoring changes in the growing lava dome with laser reflectors.
The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens was not at all unexpected, but the magnitude and violence of the blast generally was.
At 8:32 AM on that Sunday morning, May 18, a huge earthquake shook the mountain. Johnston, alone at Coldwater II, immediately got on the radio. He shouted, “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” These were his last words. Seconds later the lateral blast wave devastated the entire area–erupting outward, as Johnston and a few outliers had predicted, not upwards as the others had. Likely the last thing he saw was a huge wave of gray-colored earth, rock, and ash rushing toward him. This must have been terrifying, but perhaps also beautiful and gratifying. As Johnston’s family observed, he died doing what he loved and what was meaningful to him. As tragic as his loss certainly was, there are much worse deaths.
Johnston’s body was never found, as were many of the 57 dead who were buried by immense ash clouds, mudslides or blast waves resulting from the explosion. In 1993, however, construction workers building a highway in the area unearthed pieces of Johnston’s car, although his remains (if any) were not inside. Ironically, the highway the workers were constructing led to a new observatory at a place called Johnston Ridge–named for David Johnston.
Here was a young man who was intelligent, dedicated, well-liked and respected. As long as the story of Mt. St. Helens’s 1980 eruption is told, David Johnston’s name will be associated with it.