Mount Saint Helens Exploded 33 Years Ago this Week – My Dad Was There the Next Day – And Here are Some of his Photos

14 May

0-StH-before-2-final-Dig

I remember the boom that Sunday morning, May 18th, 1980 – 33 years ago this week – as we were getting ready for church on Orcas Island, Washington. It was 8:32am – or however long it takes for sound to travel 300 miles. My oldest sister was off at college, my Dad was down in Oregon at work with the Air Force, and my other sister, our Mom, and I were slipping on our Sunday shoes and just about to head out the door when we heard it.

“Oh, they’re dynamiting on Buck Mountain,” Mom said dismissively.

But Jenny and I said, “No! It was Mount Saint Helens!”

“No,” Mom disagreed. “We couldn’t hear it this far away.”

“It was the mountain, Mom,” we said again. “Turn on the radio.”

Sure enough, Mount Saint Helens – which had been steaming and belching and threatening to explode for weeks – had finally blown her top. The mountain – the entire skyline of southern Washington State – was no longer the same. The north face of the mountain was gone.

And so were 57 people with her.

My father, LTC David K. Wendt, was a rescue helicopter pilot for the United States Air Force Reserve, based out of Portland, Oregon. Here’s what Dad had to say about May 18th:

“I was the duty officer that Sunday – in the RCC (Rescue Control Center) which was a madhouse!! We were getting calls from everybody – including the President of the United States (or the White House office, anyway, to set up a visit for President Carter.) I didn’t get to fly until Monday morning – when I found the Moore family. Lienau’s rescue was a week later.” (The following photographs will fill-out the stories of these people a little more.)

These are some of his photographs, taken over the next several days following the event on May 18th.

The cauldron!

The cauldron!

It's like a photo from you-know-where.

It’s like a photo from you-know-where.

These were trees.

These were trees. The explosion – firing at several hundred miles per hour – killed every living thing within a 230 square mile radius. All within a time period of 5-9 minutes. The orange smudge in this photo is a flare. (See links below to verify this information.)

Blasted trees on the surface of Spirit Lake.  Spirit Lake was made famous even before the explosion because of a long-time resident, Harry Truman, who refused to evacuate prior to the explosion they KNEW was coming.  His body was never found.

Blasted trees on the surface of Spirit Lake. Spirit Lake was made famous even before the explosion because of a long-time resident, Harry Truman, who refused to evacuate prior to the explosion they KNEW was coming. His body was never found.

Steam vents - filled with logs from the blast.

Steam vents – filled with logs from the blast.

Steaming waterfall.

Steaming waterfall.

38-StH steam portrait-Dig

35-Devis-lake-holes-Dig

Devis Valley

Devis Valley

A 200 foot hover, while a parajumper is hanging on the end of a 200 foot cable as he works to make a rescue.

A 200 foot hover, while a parajumper is hanging on the end of a 200 foot cable as he works to make a rescue.

Flying toward a lake on the mountain.

Flying toward a lake on the mountain.

Micheal Lienau, rescued by Dad and his crew.  They have kept in touch over the years.  He was a photographer for National Geographic.

Micheal Lienau, rescued by Dad and his crew. Several years ago they saw each other again as they were both asked to be a part of an NBC production on “Disaster Survival”. Here’s what Dad had to say about Lienau: “He made a video of the whole ordeal – saying how they looked back up the pass they’d come through and saw a volcano-blasted tree in the shape of a cross – just showing in the narrow slit of overcast volcanic cloud and the pass. He told the others with him – after seeing that cross – that he truly felt they were going to be saved – and a few minutes later we flew over the pass! I was hover-tracking them by their trail left in the ash and mud.” Otto Seiber, another guy rescued by Dad and his crew, was a filmmaker from Seattle, who went with his film crew to document the destruction on May 23rd. Their compasses freaked out in the volcanic atmosphere and they got themselves lost in a hurry. The mountain then erupted again on May 25th, and Dad and his team rescued them. By the way, Wikipedia has proven its reputation for inaccuracy by reporting that they were rescued by the National Guard…but it was NOT the guard, it was the Air Force!

Taken from another helicopter.

A helicopter-view of another Huey.

18a-Steam vents-3-Dig

Steam vents

Steam vents

They searched for the Moores - and they found them on the 19th.  Alive.

They searched for the Moores – and they found them. Alive. Mother, father, and two small children.

The Moores.

The Moores.

Heart Lake

Heart Lake

Reid Blackburn's car.  He was a photojournalist for a Washington newspaper as well as for National Geographic magazine.  His body was eventually recovered from his car.

Reid Blackburn’s car. He was a photojournalist for a Washington newspaper as well as for National Geographic magazine. His body was eventually recovered from the car.

Chemically-altered pools.  All sorts of weird stuff in that ash and lava!

Chemically-altered pools. All sorts of weird stuff in that ash and lava!

28-StH-lake-portrait-Dig

30-Cold Lake & reflection-Dig

40--StHelens-Dig

Dad didn't send me this photo - but I wanted to include it!  Details of the rescue of the Moores.  This is the nomination form that was turned in, nominating them for the Helicopter Heroism Award that year.

Dad didn’t send me this photo because he’s not one to brag – but I wanted to include it! Details of the rescue of the Moores. This is the nomination form that was turned in, nominating them for the Helicopter Heroism Award that year.

Amazing what the ash in the air will do to a sunset!

Amazing what the ash in the air will do to a sunset!

Forever changed.

Forever changed.

Here are several interesting links:

A very informative video put out by the USGS – the United States Geological Survey.

The USDA/FS site (United States Department of Agriculture / Forest Service)

Mount Saint Helens.com

A USGS summary of the event, including right before it and several years after it.

There are many, many more sites – I just choose a few which seemed especially good.

My Dad has had his photos used by the USGS, the Mt. St. Helens Interpretive Center, and this book, Fire Mountain. I have many reasons to be proud of my dad. The things he did during his Mount Saint Helens rescues are definitely some of them.

Copyright Notice: Unauthorized use and/or duplication of any material in this blog without written permission from the blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Copyright May 14, 2013 by Gretchen Anne O’Donnell and Col. David K. Wendt, USAFR

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31 Responses to “Mount Saint Helens Exploded 33 Years Ago this Week – My Dad Was There the Next Day – And Here are Some of his Photos”

  1. Notes To Ponder May 14, 2013 at 7:06 am #

    I was in Vancouver B.C. that morning, I remember the birds suddenly became quite, and sensing something out of place.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 14, 2013 at 7:21 am #

      OH, wow – interesting! What a cool thing to have observed. Did you hear it, too?

      • Notes To Ponder May 19, 2013 at 2:30 am #

        Sorry to take so long to respond. :) No I didn’t hear it, just the creepy silence of the birds. I have friends who swear they did, and we had plenty of ash falling.

        • Gretchen O'Donnell May 19, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

          No worries! Interesting you had the ash – I had the sound but no ash! (Orcas Island is located just south of Vancouver Island.) Weird how the winds go, isn’t it?

  2. Hotly Spiced May 14, 2013 at 7:10 am #

    Your father has every right to be proud of his efforts. What an incredible experience. Your images are so moving. Some of them are so beautiful, others so disturbing xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 14, 2013 at 7:22 am #

      Thanks, Charlie. Yes, it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime thing to experience – which is probably ok! And yes, I’m sure that the whole thing was a mixed bag of awe and very disturbing!

  3. Minnesota Prairie Roots May 14, 2013 at 7:28 am #

    Wow. These photos are beyond impressive. Thank you for sharing them and the story of your dad’s involvement in the rescue of two families. You have every right to be proud of him. To save lives…I can’t imagine anything more humbling and rewarding. So very thankful God protected him during these rescues.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 14, 2013 at 10:50 am #

      Thanks – my father is rarely seen without a camera somewhere on or near him. The photos make the experience so much more understandable. Make the statistics believable.

  4. treadlemusic May 14, 2013 at 8:20 am #

    Wow! That is so interesting and I had lost track of the “time frame” for this. DH was long-haul trucking back then and trucks, planes etc were badly affected for weeks due to the ash. We saw the jet-stream carrying ash further East over our heads!!! Truly amazing power!!!! Great post!!!! Hugs….

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 14, 2013 at 10:53 am #

      Yeah, hard to believe it was 33 years ago. Yes, I can totally remember news stories about the blocked highways and such. For years you could see piles of ash still, along I5.

  5. gardenfreshtomatoes May 14, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    You have the honor of having been part of so much history, Gretchen. This story, and others you’ve posted just leave me speechless sometimes…The rescues, the photos – thanks so much for sharing them with us, along with a little piece of your beloved Dad.

    By the way – we had spectacular sunsets all summer from the ash, all the way out in Oklahoma!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 14, 2013 at 10:55 am #

      You’re right – it’s pretty cool the stuff I’ve been able to see or at least be in the proximity of! That’s interesting that even in OK you had the sunsets for that long. Isn’t nature amazing? Crazy how something beautiful comes from such destruction.

  6. Laurie (Morrill) French May 14, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    WOW! Thanks so very much for sharing your Dad’s experience and his photos. I, like so many people go through life and never really find any talent that stands out in me. Your Dad has been blessed with so much. To have the skill to fly aircraft is amazing in it self. But to be a talented photographer also and be given the opportunity to be in that place at that time is awesome. God bless you Dave for your courage for being on that dangerous, life threatening mission. Thank God it was successfull all around for everyone. I was one year into my new job with GTE in Everett at the time. I heard the blast and drove in the ash. An amazing time in history for Washington Sate.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 14, 2013 at 10:57 am #

      Yes, indeed it was. I don’t remember any ash on the island. I guess the ocean got in the way! I still have a bottle of ash that Dad collected. Yes, my dad is rather amazing, isn’t he?!! :-)

  7. cravesadventure May 14, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    WOW – thanks so much for sharing – great captures!!! Happy Tuesday:)

  8. Nancy Cook May 14, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    Beautiful pictures of a historic event in our U.S. of A. Thanks for reminding us of that blast and the heroism that happened. (especially that your Dad was one of them!)

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 14, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

      Thanks, Nancy! :-) Every terrible event seems to have heroes connected with them. It’s what makes them bearable.

  9. soshemarriedafarmer May 14, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    Super neat. The photos are almost unbelievable.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 15, 2013 at 5:44 am #

      Thanks, Rita. I know what you mean – it would be impossible to imagine up from scratch anything so awful.

  10. Sartenada May 18, 2013 at 4:17 am #

    Those photos are great. I remember it very well, because in Finland we saw later an excellent documentary of it. It was so impressive that I stll can see it in my eyes.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 18, 2013 at 9:39 am #

      Oh, interesting! Yes, it is a thing that definitely sticks in your mind – the images. Awe-inspiring.

  11. Tami Scott May 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Gretchen,

    This really tugged at my heart strings. What an amazing legacy your dad leaves behind. I had no idea that he was part of this. Thanks for sharing.

    Tami

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 20, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

      Thanks, Tami – it was amazing, wasn’t it? So many stories he has to tell. He’s been good lately about writing them down.

  12. Gwen May 20, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    Hard to believe it was so long ago. Wonderful photos.

  13. whatimeant2say May 22, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    Wow that was fascinating! What an interesting piece of history! That should be in a museum!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 23, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

      Yes, it was an amazing and frightening piece of history, for sure. Some of his photos are used at the Mt. St. Helens interpretive center…

  14. sandradan1 April 8, 2014 at 1:26 am #

    Amazing photos, thx for sharing Gretchen. SD

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