Reporting on the Mount St. Helens eruption 40 years ago

In Edmonds that Sunday morning 40 years ago, my wife Sonja and I almost slept through the instant that Mount St. Helens blew its top at 8:32 a.m. May 18, 1980.


Mt. St. Helens as it looked before the eruption.

But, a “pop,” a thump, as if someone had dropped a big garbage bin, woke us for a moment. We dozed off. Minutes later, work called; the assignment desk at KOMO-TV News, telling me to get here ASAP; St. Helens had exploded.

May 18, 1980
(Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

For weeks prior, we had reported on the mountain. Earthquakes had rumbled deep in St. Helens; it was growing an ugly “bulge” on the north slope; sometimes expanding 5 feet a day.

Then, on March 27, the volcano “burped”for the first time in 120 years, spewing ash and steam out of a small vent, spoiling the picture post card summit.

That afternoon, I helicoptered in with a photographer and a production assistant, and our pilot dropped us off on a lonely, snow-choked ridge about 10 miles from the summit.

Bob Throndsen, KOMO-TV News, reporting from Mount St. Helens March 27, 1980

We did the very first live broadcast from St. Helens during that early incident; then, waited anxiously for our pilot to return and pluck us out of there. Somewhere, as dusk came, a coyote howled, sending chills through us.

On May 19, I was assigned to get as close to the mountain as we could, which was miles away and report, live, on what was happening.

Photo by Bob Throndsen                                                                    
Photo by Bob Throndsen

We would soon learn that 57 people had died. That the eruption had leveled 230 square miles of timber — that’s three times the size of the city of Seattle. And that the volcano rocketed an ash cloud 15 miles high that would eventually circle the earth.

Photo by Dave Crockett, KOMO-TV, May 18, 1980
Dave Crockett, KOMO-TV News, reporting
on May 18, 1980.

That night, May 19, on a dark ridge, near St. Helens, our tiny TV showed the first video from KOMO photographer Dave Crockett, who was trapped on the flank of the mountain on the 18th; but kept his film camera rolling as waves of ash shut out the sun and nearly killed him as he struggled to escape what he called a “hell on earth.” He survived.

(Photos by Bob Throndsen)

I was to report on the mountain many times during the next two years, recounting the heroes and the tragedies that reshaped our state and our lives when Mount St. Helens blew its top that morning of May 18, 1980.

On the 10th anniversary of the St. Helens eruption, KOMO-TV produced a remarkable documentary, Up From the Ashes, Mount St. Helens-1990.

— By Bob Throndsen

































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