THE WALL OF airborne ash and molten rock roared toward the Renault station wagon at nearly half the speed of sound. As her husband Paul gunned the car along the logging road, Catherine Hickson stared back at the advancing black cloud, and thought, We could die.
The couple knew the risk of being near Mount St. Helens that Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, when the mountain exploded. Volcanologists had foretold the eruption for months. In fact, Hickson, then a geology student at the University of British Columbia, had driven down from Vancouver to observe the volcano burn off steam. But she hadn’t expected to be on the wrong end of a detonation that would kill 57 people.
This May, survivors of the eruption will gather near what is left of the mountain to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the blast. Among them will be retired Air Force reserve helicopter pilot David Wendt, who vividly remembers flying over “a moonscape, with no trees, no nothing, all steam and smoke” to recover bodies. “His torso had been blasted to just bone,” Wendt recalls of one victim. A young couple the helicopter team found was “hardboiled,” the pilot says. A 1,200-degree cloud of rock, ash, steam, and ice had incinerated the bodies.
That same cloud now chased Hickson and her husband along a ridge southeast of the volcano. The trembling earth knocked rocks onto the road, which the couple shared with elk and deer scrambling for higher ground. Paul stomped on the station wagon’s gas pedal as Catherine twisted in her seat to check on the death cloud’s progress. “What’s happening?” he asked, turning around. “Don’t look, don’t look,” she screamed. “Just drive!”
The Canadians came across two carloads of locals on a fishing trip; the fishing party promised to help them find a safe path out of the wilderness. And so the three cars caravanned the dirt roads in search of an escape route. They found one—even after fist-size clumps of pumice pummeled the lead car’s windshield and forced the entourage to double back—and Hickson and her husband drove home to Vancouver, shaken and forever changed.
“I was frightened that entire morning,” she recently recalled. “But it changed me. It changed what I studied. It changed what I became.” She became Canada’s most celebrated volcanologist.
In its death toll, its reshaping of the landscape (200 square miles of forest obliterated), even in its impact on our imaginations (think of all the natural disaster movies that mimic the survivors’ race against death), the St. Helens eruption was like nothing else, Hickson says.
In her mind she often goes back to one solitary moment. During the caravan’s slog out of the wilderness, she had jumped out of the Renault to wait for the following car and deliver a message. Standing on the side of the road, alone in the blinding ash, she listened. The invisible sky crackled and popped: the sound of the volcano’s magma blasting from its ancient dwelling, the sound of Mount St. Helens exploding into history.
This story appeared in the May 2010 issue of Seattle Met magazine.