30 years ago, a very young Josh Rosenau looked out the window of his parents house in Portland, Oregon, pointed at the volcanic ash settling on the trees and sidewalks, and explained: “‘cano!” Folks had been anticipating the eruption of Mt. St. Helens for weeks, some of them even eagerly urging the volcano to blow its top.
My dad, a reporter at Portland’s KGW-8 TV station, covered the Mt. St. Helens eruption, flying with a camera crew to survey the mountain once it was safe to get close, and later reporting from inside the crater about the work geologists were doing to understand the volcano’s history and to better predict future eruptions.
Of all the destruction, the mudslides and abrasive ash and trees flattened into neat rows and roads covered in lava and lakes clogged with downed trees, the most moving story of that day 30 years ago remains the death of one man, geologist David Johnston. Johnston was on a ridge north of the volcano watching the growing bulge of magma, gathering data and trying to anticipate the mountain’s future. On the morning of May 18, he radioed to the temporary base station to warn them: “Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!”
Rather than erupting upward, the blast moved sideways, toward Johnston’s observation post, obliterating the building within seconds. His body was never found, but the ridge from which he spoke those last words is now named in his honor, as is the USGS station in Vancouver that received that final report.
The CIA has a wall with stars to commemorate the deaths of its agents. Every town has a memorial to its young men who died in combat. It’s right and proper that the scientists who work to keep us safe are memorialized in a like manner. Observations like those Johnston was gathering have done wonders for planning safe evacuations before major eruptions. done wonders for planning safe evacuations before major eruptions.