Shaken 10 minutes earlier by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale, the north face of this tall, symmetrical volcano collapsed, resulting in the largest known landslide in world history. These slabs of earth and ice slammed into nearby Spirit Lake, crossed a ridge 1,300 feet high, and roared 14 miles down the Toutle River.
The avalanche rapidly released pressurized gases that had long been surging inside the mountain. For at least a week its northwestern flank had been bulging out as much as 12 feet a day from the increasing pressure of rising magma.
And then Mount St. Helens - a pristine, previously dormant volcano that had long been a major part of the eastern Washington landscape - mostly ceased to exist.
The explosion was five hundred times more powerful than either of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
The tremendous lateral blast turned 250 million cubic yards of mountain into a turbulent, stone-filled wind that swept over ridges, toppled trees and scorched the earth nearby at temperatures well over 600 degrees Fahrenheit, flattening or disintegrating practically everything within a 150 square miles of the volcano's northern side.
Within minutes the eruption began blasting material straight up into the sky; it would continue for 9 hours. The top 1,317 feet of the peak and most of its northwestern side were no more. In its place would eventually be a gaping, horseshoe-shaped crater 2,460 feet deep, making St. Helens little more than a gargantuan shell.
The final result of this activity was a mushroom-shaped column of volcanic ash that rose thousands of feet skyward and drifted across eastern Washington and beyond, turning day into darkest night as gray ash fell over a major part of the southwest. Melted snow and earth became wet, cement-like slurries of rock and mud scouring all sides of the volcano. Searing flows of white-hot lava oozed from the gaping crater.
Fifty-seven people lost their lives when Mount St. Helens erupted that May morning. But a few like Jim Scymanky actually lived through it, thanks only to a simple combination of sheer endurance and dumb-assed luck.
If you've ever considered trying to 'tough through' a massive volcanic eruption to see the sights, consider Jim's story.
Scymanky was working that day as part of a four-man logging team above the Toutle River. Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray had ordered all people out of a 10-mile-zone around St. Helens. Scymanky and his crew were issued work permits allowing them to work just outside the perimeter.
The crew figured they were safe.
Until a Hispanic co-worker on the ridge suddenly raced downhill shouting, in Spanish, "The volcano is exploding!"
Scymanky barely tossed his saw when he heard what he says sounded like two jetliners racing toward him. That's when the forest disappeared.
Rocks-cum-missiles blew the trees apart. Then came the ash. A hot wall of cinder, blown by a force that even 10 miles from the blast whipped winds around Scymanky at around 55 mph, battered most everything to the ground.
There was no light. Scymanky sucked in pure ash for more than a minute. "I can't see. I can't breathe. I feel like I'm being buried. The pain is just unbearable," he recalled recently to MSNBC News.
Scymanky says the heat was so intense that his cotton gloves melted onto his hands. "You didn't know where the hell you were," Scymanky says. "One minute you've got landmarks all over - you know where the stream is, where the roads are . . . [but after the blast,] no roads. No streams. No nothing. I mean, just gone. It was like it picked you up and put you on a different planet."
Scymanky saw that all four men somehow survived the blast.
Their luck was about to run out.
Their bodies scorched, the four wandered 4.5 miles before reaching the result of a huge rock avalanche that blocked the only way out of the mess. Meanwhile the river below was rising quickly, filling the valley with mud and volcanic debris.
Two of the men refused to give up. One climbed the avalanche; the other tried going across the river. They were never heard from again.
And Jim? "I thought to myself - and I didn't say it to anyone else - 'How long is it going to take to die? This is a long, painful death,'" says Scymanky now.
But shortly before that thought became reality, two National Guard helicopters swooped down to rescue Scymanky and the other co-worker. The other man later died.
Scymanky suffered severe burns on his back, neck, arms and legs. He vomited ash for days. A vast, gray landscape lay where once were acres of forested slopes. The total eruption lasted 9 hours, but Mount St. Helens and the surrounding countryside would be changed for years.
Scymanky never logged again. He now makes a living restoring antique cars.
Most active volcanoes don't explode like this one or Vesuvius, the volcano that buried and perfectly preserved the ancient Roman city of Pompeii about 2,000 years ago, killing all its inhabitants with rivers of lava and ash.
In most cases, an volcanic eruption simply produces a combination of slow-moving lava and poisonous gases - a wonder very dangerous in its own right. However, some rather benign eruptions can be viewed, provided you always follow a guide's advice, stay far clear of the lava and upwind of the gases.
But even with the slowest-moving lava flows, danger can occur if you're not careful. How can you escape it? Understanding and listening to the experts is key.
Stanley Williams, a vulcanologist (volcano expert) who led an ill-fated scientific party into the mouth of an Arizona volcano shortly before its eruption a few years ago, co-wrote with ghost writer Fen Montaigne in the preface to their recent book, 'Surviving Galeras':
My fascination with volcanoes, now a quarter century old, taps into
something universal and timeless. As they watched fountains of lava spew from
Mount Etna in Italy or Popocatépetl in Mexico, the ancients believed they
were witnessing a phenomenon linked to the origins of the universe. The
flames and magma gushing from a volcano came from a place as mysterious as
the heavens above. Small wonder that the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas tossed
virgins into the mouth of this beast; it was capable of destroying villages,
towns, entire civilizations in an instant. Human sacrifice, they believed,
would placate the monster.
To the Greeks, volcanoes were a direct conduit to Hades. The Romans
believed the entrance to hell was in the Phlegraean Fields, next to Vesuvius,
where gases poured out of hundreds of fumaroles. Vulcan - the Roman god of
fire - lived deep inside a mountain on Vulcano, in the Aeolian Islands.
There, at his underground forge, he rocked the earth and unleashed eruptions
as he made weapons for Apollo, Hercules, and the other gods. The Icelanders,
living on an island that was but a mound of volcanoes, believed Hell's
gateway was the crater of the massive fire mountain Hekla.
To the Greeks, volcanoes were a direct conduit to Hades. The Romans believed the entrance to hell was in the Phlegraean Fields, next to Vesuvius, where gases poured out of hundreds of fumaroles. Vulcan - the Roman god of fire - lived deep inside a mountain on Vulcano, in the Aeolian Islands. There, at his underground forge, he rocked the earth and unleashed eruptions as he made weapons for Apollo, Hercules, and the other gods. The Icelanders, living on an island that was but a mound of volcanoes, believed Hell's gateway was the crater of the massive fire mountain Hekla.
One things the ancients understood was that there is a lot of activity going on beneath the earth's crust.
This little planet may look like a single solid mass, but it's really made up of several massive plates of earth and rock. These crustal plates are constantly moving and colliding with one another, creating earthquakes and the pressure zones that lead to volcanic eruptions.
Underneath those sliding and colliding plates is hot, melted rock known as magma; it sometimes collects in areas of high pressure called, naturally enough, magma chambers. When this pressure builds up and becomes too great, the magma sometimes explodes upward in a great cataclysmic event. This is a volcano.
When this magma has reached the surface of the earth's crust, it's called lava.
Volcanic gases are also emitted during the eruption. The chief gas is water vapor or steam, although it can also contain carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulphur, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, chlorine, and numerous other gases. The high-pressure gases also eject red-hot fragments that range in size from huge blocks to fine dustlike particles.
There are many types of these fragments, officially called pyroclastics. They include:
Blocks - larger fragments, made of crustal pieces or older lava;
Volcanic bombs - masses of new lava blown from the crater and hardened during flight, becoming spindle-shaped as they fly through the air;
Breadcrust bomb - a type of pyroclastic that resembles a loaf of French bread with large cracks in the crust;
Lapilli - (Italian, meaning "little stones") Smaller, broken fragments about the size of walnuts;
Pumice - Produced by acidic lavas where there is so much gas content that the magma bubbles as it rises to the surface. Pumice contains many air spaces that were formed by expanding gases, so it will float in water;
Pele's hair - A material resembling spun glass created by lava fountains (where steam jets blow lava into the air); named after the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes; very similar to rock wool, a man-made material widely used for insulation, etc.
Lava is composed mostly of silicon dioxide (SiO2). The lava's silicon dioxide amount can be:
Basic - Lava with less than 52% of SiO2
Intermediate - Lava that contains between 52% and 66%
Acidic - Lava that contains 66% or more of SiO2.
After issuing forth from the crater via cracks, holes, or fissures, lava will spread out like tongues of hot, melted rock. Sometimes sheets of lava can cover thousands of square miles, far away from their source. Liquid lava can flow farther than the thicker, more viscous lava types.
Lava will eventually cool and harden, usually into one of two types. The ' pahoe' type (known as "corded" in Italy) has a smooth, billowy surface, and resembles huge coils of rope; these mainly develop from basic lava. The 'aa' type of cooled lava consists of angular, jagged blocks, often with sharp edges and spiny crags.
Sometimes, the outer surface of a lava flow will harden when the inside core is still hot and flowing. If this middle part flows away, it will leave the outer cylinder, creating a lava tube. Lava tubes can continue for several miles. The world's longest tube is in Northern California, extending 13.8 miles in length. In fact, one such tube near Dubois, Idaho, has been made into a bomb and fall-out shelter that in a pinch can hold the town's entire population of about 2,500.
Another interesting creation is the tree mold or lava tree, formed when liquid lava encases a tree trunk. The tree will usually burn, leaving details of its bark or wood preserved in the cooled lava.
Visitors to volcanoes will find themselves experiencing a beautiful outdoor recreation. These tourist sites usually ask people to use common sense when climbing slopes and sightseeing, and we're not about to argue with them. Take lots of water, don't overstrain yourself, and use a knowledgable guide whenever you can.
Above all, use caution when visiting active volcanoes. Do not venture toward any activity, and consult local experts on the area. Follow all recommendations, regulations, or requests of officials.
Here are some things to watch out for:
a.) Lava flows - Stay away from lava flows. Not all of them will be red-hot and obvious; some move very slowly and appear as dark and solid, but are liquid beneath the surface. Also, do not try to cross an active flow; you might get trapped by multiple lava streams.
b.) Pyroclastic flows - Do not visit volcanoes that are having or are about to have pyroclastic explosions like Mount St. Helens had in 1980, for (hopefully) obvious reasons. The high temperature around such a volcano can itself be life-threatening.
c.) Colcanic domes - Volcanic domes and plugs in craters may seem harmless, but they can explode without warning. Footing and glassy rocks can also be very dangerous. Some cooled lava of this sort can resemble jagged pieces of glass. Wear good, solid hiking boots on the mountain - never go barefoot. Be sure of your step.
d.) Lahars and floods - Be careful when crossing lahar (debris flows), for they can gush in large and small floods.
e.) Gases - Avoid areas where volcanic gas is released. Carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide can kill quickly and silently. You may not be able to hold your breath long enough. If you see a location around an active volcano with dead vegetation, carcasses, or bones, do not enter it.
f.) Geothermal areas - hot springs, mudpots, and geysers are also very interesting, but don't go across unexplored areas that contain many of them. Stay on marked trails, because the thin silica crusts over boiling pools can break if stepped upon. Falling in can cause third-degree burns or death.
The bottom line? Appreciate the natural wonder of volcanoes, but be careful, too.
Before an Eruption Occurs:
Discover whether there are volcanic hazards in the area likely to affect you.
If you live in an active volcanic zone, always assume that you may have to deal with the effects of an eruption.
If you live in an area that could experience a lava flow during a volcanic eruption, know a quick route to safe ground.
Listen to authorities regarding volcanic activity.
If vulcanologists agree that a life-threatening eruption is likely to take place, a Civil Defense Emergency will be declared and the danger area evacuated. Listen to your radio or TV for information and follow civil defense advice.
Stay indoors with your pets as much as possible.
Wear mask and goggles if you go outside, to keep volcanic ash out of your eyes and lungs.
Keep gutters and roof clear of heavy deposits of ash, which can collapse the roof.
Take your outdoor clothing off before entering a building - volcanic ash is difficult to get rid of.
Take your Getaway Kit with you if you have to leave. Turn electricity and gas off at the mains. If you turn gas off, have a professional check for leaks in case of damage before turning gas on again.
Keep below ridge lines in hilly terrain - the hills will offer some protection from flying volcanic debris.
DON'T Go sightseeing!
DON'T Leave home unless advised to by the Civil Defense.
In 1982 the President and Congress created the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument for research and education. Inside the monument, the environment has been left to respond naturally to the disturbance.
The volcano continued to erupt until 1986, violently at first, then quietly building a lava dome. Thick lava eruptions oozed out, each one piling on top of the next, like a stack of gigantic pancakes. The lava dome is now 920 feet high. The United States Geological Survey scientists continue to monitor the volcano for earthquakes, swelling, and gas emissions. The old peak has taught us much about a volcano's inner workings and its aftermath.
One heartening tale of Mount St. Helens has been the surprisingly quick return of plants to the mountain. Peter Frenzen, monument scientist for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, says the key was that much of the nearby forest was still blanketed by snow that May day. The protected plants laid the groundwork for the mountain to grow green once again.
Studying the many patterns of regrowth after a volcanic eruption like St. Helens can help people in other parts of the world understand how life grows back after an earthquake, hurricane or flood.
But for all the advances in forestry and ecology, the strongest scientific legacy of Mount St. Helens is probably in vulcanology. Monitoring the mountain for months before it blew allowed scientists to track the evolution of an eruption from a very early stage.
The cataclysm altered their perceptions. Nobody had ever seen a volcano fall apart before, but that's what St. Helens did when its north face collapsed just before the blast, unleashing a torrent of debris.
A practical application of the new understanding of volcanoes is the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. When a volcano is about to erupt in a developing country, scientists specially trained at the St. Helens site are sent to assist with evacuation and recovery efforts.
The program's most famous success was with Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, where the team helped evacuate more than 75,000 people and saved millions of dollars in damages by moving portable equipment out of harm's way in the 10 weeks between the mountain's reawakening and its climactic eruption.
That helps vulcanologists evaluate the potential damage of a Rainier eruption, which would be colossal. Rainier is 4,000 feet taller than St. Helens was, much closer to a large population center - Seattle - and covered with millions of tons of ice that would unleash huge mudflows down the rivers leading to Puget Sound, endangering more than 250,000 people.
Any evacuation would be a major undertaking, but Mount St. Helens has motivated scientists and local governments to develop a detailed emergency management plan.
The wonderful, horrible loneliness vulcanologists experience can perhaps be summed up by looking at David Johnston of the U.S. Geological Survey. In 1980 Johnston was a 30-year-old scientist sent to study the impending eruption of Mount St. Helens.
On May 17, 1980, Johnston landed a helicopter on the bulging northwest side of the volcano to take gas samples. Another young vulcanologist, Harry Glicken, took two pictures of Johnston with the help of a telephoto lens as he worked. They show a mere speck of a man, dressed in blue jeans, bending over in the midst of taking a sample from the back of the beast.
Everyone knew some big eruption was imminent. No one went up with Johnston that day.
Camping at an observation post on a ridge just 5.7 miles northwest of the summit, Johnston barely had enough time the next morning to radio his colleagues in the nearby town of Vancouver when it came.
He screamed his last words into a radio at 8:42 a.m. as the superheated ash cloud, as destructive as the greatest nuclear blast, ripped toward him at about 300 mph.
"Vancouver, Vancouver," he cried excitedly, "this is it!"
That spot is now known as Johnston Ridge.