I was 5 years old when Mount St. Helens blew its top in southwest Washington State in 1980. Although I lived nearly 300 miles away, I remember my hometown of Spokane going dark in the middle of that Sunday and ash falling from the sky like eerie, gray snow.
Everyone who experienced the massive blast remembers that 57 people died that day. But what struck me after reading Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens is that, aside from the famously cantankerous octogenarian Harry Truman, who refused to leave his lodge near the mountain, we know very little about those who died. We assume that they took unnecessary risks that cost them their lives.
In this captivating and damning book, Steve Olson examines why people were near the mountain despite warnings from geologists after a series of quakes and smaller eruptions. Government officials didn’t want to appear overzealous or hurt the already shaky timber industry by overstating the danger zone. The resulting hazard map made it appear that people could get close to the mountain on the west and northwest sides and be safe. That misleading information would have deadly consequences.
Dozens of individuals who thought they were following the rules ventured dangerously near the volcano to camp, hike or simply take a curious peek at the awakening mountain. They were unaware that a blast would flatten the landscape for miles around, sending a cloud of searing crushed pumice zooming over the nearby ridges. One couple was camping nine miles away from the summit of the mountain. The husband, John Killian, was never found. His wife’s left arm was recovered months later. Many of the victims burned to death or were suffocated by the blast cloud. Others were crushed by falling debris.
Olson, an award-winning science writer, brings a new perspective to the navigation of natural disasters, drawing a clear picture of how industry and politics affected who lived and died that day. Eruption is an eye-opening and dramatic read that reminds us of nature’s power and unpredictability—and our human propensity for underestimating it.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Olson about Eruption.