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.
It’s like a photo from you-know-where.
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.
Steam vents – filled with logs from the blast.
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.
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!
A helicopter-view of another Huey.
They searched for the Moores – and they found them. Alive. Mother, father, and two small children.
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!
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!
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.
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Copyright May 14, 2013 by Gretchen Anne O’Donnell and Col. David K. Wendt, USAFR