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

































  1. I remember that day! I worked for a major container shipping co…and the Columbia River was impassable at certain points….when I got home (Greenlake in those days…we could still see the ash up there!). I think I still have the newpaper article published in the Seattle Times. Shortly after, my sons and I went camping in Eastern Washington…the ash followed us to our campspot! What a time.

  2. Hi Bob. Thanks for sharing your pictures and experience. I also remember that day well. I had only been working for KIRO Radio for a short time, still learning the ins and outs of the Newsradio on-air format. I was on the air that Sunday morning broadcasting the usual news, sports, weather etc. when word came into the newsroom the Mt. St. Helens has erupted. Over the next few hours, I would do numerous interviews with reporters, state officials as well as residents from around the state describing to our listeners what they were experiencing. As I did, I was also watching our TV monitors as the first pictures of the mass destruction started coming in. Although we were all somewhat prepared for what might occur if the mountain blew, I could not believe what I was hearing and seeing. Quite an experience. It is remarkable to see how the Mt. St. Helens blast zone has continued to evolve over the years with new plant and animal life obscuring the devastation. Let us hope Mt. St. Helens remains quiet and continues to display a new beauty.

  3. The 40th anniversary reminded me that it was the mountain blowing that first caused me to have to wear a mask. We were in the middle of moving from Beaverton, Oregon to Edmonds and still owned a home in Beaverton. The winds carried considerable ash there and we were advised to wear a mask when cutting our lawns. The ash was later determined to be non-toxic. I still have a jar of the ash – someplace.

  4. My girlfriend of the time lived high up in a south-facing unit of a large apartment tower outside of Vancouver, B.C., and as we were having our morning coffee we heard this weird, low, undulating rumble in the distance (the wall of the building, and her semi-enclosed balcony acted as a sort of gigantic, concrete “sounding board”). At the time we thought that a plane had pancaked at faraway YVR. I will always be struck at the force of that explosive eruption, to have caused such a discernible sound at that distance. My heart still goes out to the families of everyone who lost their lives during that event.

  5. I stood on a hill above Portland and watched the eruption. Was hard to comprehend at the time..

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