Dark Noon

Synopsis of Friday night lecture on October 14, 2016, with speaker Dr. Richard Waitt

by Carol Hasenberg

Dr. Richard Waitt, who arrived in Washington state from the USGS office in Menlo Park, California, shortly after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, stayed to study the volcano and built the bulk of his career at the Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) in Vancouver, Washington. Dr. Waitt came to promote his new book In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St. Helens, Washington State University Press, 2015, to the GSOC audience and to describe the book’s origin and some of the stories it contains. He said that early in his research into the events of the volcanic eruption, he was focused more on the hard geology that people could describe. However, he became involved more in the stories that people told about their experiences and the process of determining the details of the event by analyzing the interviews of the witnesses. 

The witness’ accounts impressed upon Waitt that no interview is repeatable. The memories of the witnesses change and can be difficult to objectify. In order to minimize the subjectivity, Waitt verified stories with tangible records such as reports from pilots, journalists’ notes and photos, and geologic field notes. He worked on this project off and on during his career at CVO. 

The first story described by Waitt was about a witness who did not survive the eruption. Reid Blackburn, a photographer from The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, had set up two cameras borrowed from Nikon that were operated by remote control. It was his plan to take simultaneous photos of the eruption. Unfortunately, Blackburn was killed by the eruption at one of the camera stations, dubbed Coldwater 1, and the photographic film inside the cameras did not survive the blast. However, Blackburn’s notes did survive the eruption. 

The second story told by Waitt was about Dan Balch, a young man who was camping near Mt. St. Helens when the volcano erupted. The campsite was near the edge of the “blast zone”, the area hardest hit by the lateral blast of hot volcanic gases that blew out of the hole left by a massive landslide on the northeast side of the mountain, triggering the eruption. The blast zone was characterized by the fact that virtually all the trees in this area were blown down. Dan’s eruption story was that the blast knocked him down, trees blew around him and it got dark.  Snow and mud rained down at first, then everything was burning.  Almost every tree around him was blown down when he regained sight. 

A third story was that of Jim Scymanky, the lone survivor of a party of four loggers who were thinning trees near the edge of the blast zone in a different area. One of their group members announced the eruption by running towards the others and screaming. Trees started to snap off above them, and it got dark, hot, and hard to breathe. Jim felt great pain, and his gloves melted onto the skin of his hands. His skin was badly burned through his clothing. After the blast past, trees were down and everything was covered with ash. Although Jim and two of his companions were rescued, only he survived the experience. 

Not all of the accounts relayed in the book are of blast zone survivors. One family Waitt described lived on the South Toutle River, which was inundated by the hot mud pouring down from the volcano. It was their experience that a morning flood occurred directly after the eruption, but in the afternoon the flow in the river became like hot cement, over 100 degrees in temperature. They saw a car float by on the river. The hot cement-like flood got higher and higher and by 7:30 that evening it had reached their house. The dense flow caused the house to rise off its moorings and float away. The owner was able to save the family’s freezer by loading it in their truck. 

Some of the stories in the book are from the rescuers. In one such account, a Huey helicopter tried to rescue Reid Blackburn. As they traveled up the river valley looking for his camera station, they became disoriented due to the fact that the landmarks, and indeed the valley, had disappeared from the blast and ash flow. Eventually they located the Volvo that Blackburn had died in, but were not able to land. The wash from the rotors stirred up great clouds of ash when they were close to the ground. 

As the lecture concluded, a member of the audience asked the question that if the eruption happened today, would the date of eruption have been predicted more accurately? “Definitely,” said Waitt. “However, the curiosity of people is still the same and probably people would get in and get killed. People also have a right to get to their property.” 

Waitt’s book is a thorough account of tales of survivors and other witnesses to the eruption. Waitt wanted the accounts to be accessible to all people interested in the event, and deliberately wrote the book in everyday prose that “seventh graders could understand.” An anonymous Amazon reviewer describes the book “I was there and this is an accurate and factual record of what happened. It took 30 years for the author to collect, verify and re-verify all these witnesses' statements, for the most part in their own words, and the narrative is written for the non-scientist in a clear and easy-to-read format. It provides a first-hand look at the first modern documented volcanic eruption in the continental United States and is a fascinating read… The author has taken extraordinary pains to ensure that the book is true and accurate, something that's hard to come by these days… The event was exciting at the time and Richard Waitt has captured that sense in this book. What an accomplishment!” 

Recommended reading

  • Waitt, Richard, In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St. Helens, Washington State University Press, 2015

  • Vogt, Tom, “Photographer’s notebook recovered after St. Helens eruptions,” The Olympian, May 18, 2016

  • Vogt, Tom, “Waking to a nightmare: Camping trip ends in injury and death for friends,” The Columbian, April 1, 2010

  • Galvin, John, “Mount St. Helens Eruption: Washington, May 1980,” Popular Mechanics, July 29, 2007