Story #37: The greatest story of our careers

(Click here to get back to the list of 40 story links.)

By Dan Tolva

At 8:32 a.m. Sunday, May 18, 1980, I was sleeping in Vancouver, Washington, while all hell was breaking loose 45 miles away.

I had gotten home at 1 that morning from my Saturday shift as a copy editor at The Columbian. It had been a quiet night, with news of Mount St. Helens naturally dominating our thoughts.

The mountain had been active since March 27 in a series of growing eruptions that had left a huge crater at the top of the snow-clad peak and a bulging north flank. The Columbian was all over the story, with reporters on the ground and planes in the air documenting the unfolding drama.

On Saturday, the news was that some property owners near the mountain had been allowed back in the so-called Red Zone to check on their homes. The Columbian also had a representative in the area, photographer Reid Blackburn, who was stationed a few miles north of the volcano waiting to take pictures of the somewhat expected big bang.

That blast came at 8:32 a.m. Sunday, uncorked by an earthquake and huge landslide of the north face of the mountain. It was a lateral blast, which sent an ever-growing cloud of ash and searing hot gas northward to level everything in its path.

The hot and deadly cloud engulfed Spirit Lake, a lodge, and the lodge’s owner, the celebrated and colorful Harry Truman. It then proceeded to denude some 56 square miles of forest of trees and other vegetation, swell local rivers, knock out bridges, wash away homes and a lumber camp and create a huge sand bar in the Columbia River that hindered navigation for weeks thereafter.

But as I mentioned before, I slept through all the destruction. My wife, Marcia, woke me to tell me the mountain had blown up. We turned on the TV to see images of a huge cloud boiling into the sky.

Add to Marcia’s and my concerns was the fact that our oldest daughter, Erin, was staying with friends near Cougar, a small town just a few miles south of the volcano. We were, of course, worried sick, but a phone call soon allayed our fears. Erin was just fine.

I immediately got dressed and walked 18 blocks to The Columbian, where other editors and reporters were gathering to map out how we were going to cover the greatest story of our careers. Nobody had heard from Reid.

We decided to take a short break, and I walked back home and, of all things, cut the grass with a hand mower to kill time before going back to the paper.

I walked back to the office later that afternoon, and for the next few weeks would spend more time there than I would at home. Day after day, we put out huge paper after huge paper covering this massive event, in addition to a special section that went to millions of newspapers all over the country, and a book.

I was involved in all of this, of course, spending many a night sleeping in an office rather than going home. It was brutally exciting and tiring, and a cloud of grief hung over us because we had lost a colleague and friend.

Reid’s body was found in his car a few days after the eruption. His camera gear, brought back to the office, was melted and misshapen from the heat of the blast.

His widow, Fay, also worked at The Columbian, and seeing her bravely go about her duties in the next few months just added to our heartbreak.

From a professional standpoint, I thought this was The Columbian’s finest hour. In my nearly 37 years at the paper, I never saw it to be more highly regarded and prized by its readers.

Months after the eruption, we found a photo of Reid’s showing a glorious sunrise, then published it with a short poem. We devoted a whole page to just the one photo.

The evening the photo ran, I got a call at home from a reader who said she loved the photograph and that it was taped to her refrigerator even as we spoke. How this reader got my name and number I’ll never know. But her response to our effort was heartwarming indeed, and I could tell that the rest of our readers felt the same way.

I can’t think of a colleague at The Columbian whose life wasn’t profoundly changed by the events of May 18, 1980. Everything in our professional careers seemed to lead up to the volcano, and everything since seemed to flow from it.

May 18, Nov. 22, and Sept. 11 are the three days each year I reflect on where I was and what I was doing at the time of three momentous events. I’ll bet the same is true for all of my colleagues at The Columbian.

Here is a link to the 21-minute audio interview I gave to the Silver Lake Visitor’s Center.

(Click here to get back to the list of 40 story links.)

Now & then here and now…

%d bloggers like this: