On the 42nd anniversary of the Mount St. Helens disaster, a review and A+ documentaries

I like to read nonfiction, and I’ll confess, there is much of it that isn’t an easy read, even if I’m riveted by the topic. Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, however, is an exception, and on the 42nd anniversary of that fateful 1980 day, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

ERUPTION by Steve Olson

My copy of ERUPTION is tied with a ribbon because I have articles all stuffed inside it. It sits next to an oil lamp made from Mount St. Helens ash and a photograph of the now-famous buried A-frame taken just after it was deluged up to its second floor in mudflows during the event. The curious home is now a tourist attraction.

Although I can’t exactly give a “spoiler-free” review (we all know what happened at Mount St. Helens), I will do my best.

What Olson really discusses here is the conglomeration of factors that led to the deaths of 57 people—who were, contrary to the way it was spun for the press, not in what was a dedicated danger zone (except for three, two of whom had permission and one who just refused to leave his lodge). Rendered in poetic language in several places, the narrative is poignant, visual, and heartbreaking in sections, with those names we’ve seen in the headlines brought to life. Olson also gives important history about the area and the economic and political backdrop of 1980, which also played significant roles in how things panned out. Although it’s incredibly well-researched—there are probably fifty pages of sources, citations, and end-notes—this doesn’t feel like a dry history at all. It reads like a solid piece of creative nonfiction, in the vein of Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden (though not centered on one person’s experience) and Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa. Olson has done a tremendous job with honoring the victims who thought they were safe. I highly recommend this for those interested in volcanoes, geology, disasters, and the Pacific Northwest—and as a sobering reminder that life is short, and that we must always be aware and vigilant.

As far as the real disaster, I was nine and was perfectly safe on the other US coast—perfectly safe, except, of course, for my dangerous fascination. I was fascinated by volcanoes before that, thanks to the movie The Devil at 4 O’clock (read that story here), but this sparked a whole new interest. Back then, there wasn’t twenty-four hour news or the internet, so stations would break in a little more frequently with special reports about what was happening. My dad let me stay home from school on that Monday so I could catch any updates (I remember my mom giving him flack, but he told her this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I was a good student anyway so she had nothing to worry about).

If you’re interested in the event, here are several documentaries and source articles I recommend. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. These are just some of my favorites. Olson’s book also has a companion website with supplemental materials, and this can be viewed here. 

Make it Out Alive: Season 1, Episode 1: Mount St. Helens 

The Smithsonian Channel’s series kicked off with this look at who survived—and didn’t—the eruption of Mount St. Helens. A great job is done with reenactments, and we also get to hear from a few of the victims’ family members. It’s not available to rent, but it can be purchased for $1.99 at the link above on Amazon.

Minute by Minute: The Eruption of Mount St. Helens

A&E’s Minute by Minute series chronicles the eruption with stunning survivor accounts.

Mount St Helens 40th Anniversary Special 

Seattle KING 5’s news put together this 40th anniversary presentation, which features some rare back-then, on-the-spot interviews and post-disaster footage. What makes this a stand-out are the reminiscences of people who were there, studying the mountain, in the months before it blew, vintage photos sent in by viewers, and in-depth profiles of some of the victims.

Mount St. Helens: Why They Died 

This is a little bit controversial and addresses the issue of the inadequacy of the red and blue zones, the Governor’s lies and victim-blaming to cover her own ass (this isn’t opinion anymore; we now know this is fact and there’s plenty of evidence to back this up), the eruption, and the lawsuits that followed. There are also some interviews with the victims’ families that are super sad, so head’s up. This was originally presented on PBS in 1982.

PBS NOVA: Mount St Helens, Back from the Dead 

The Mount St. Helens eruption buried everything in its blast zone, leaving the landscape barren and moon-like. Life, though, began to return much more quickly than anyone expected.

Surviving the Mount St. Helens Disaster

This very recent National Geographic documentary presents rare images and survivor testimonies is available now under the National Geographic heading on Disney+. If you don’t have Disney+ right now, just hang in there. It’ll show up for rent eventually, I’m sure.

The Eruption of Mt St. Helens: Harry Truman & David Johnston {ORIGINAL MOVIE} 39 Years later

This is put together by a person who’s obviously very passionate about the subject. It’s special in that it’s a compilation of a lot of rarer raw footage—I’d never seen, for example, the stuff in the helicopter with people flying over the blast zone and commenting on what they see. From the Youtube description: “Hopefully you guys enjoy, this took a whole day to put together and a whole lot of fixing up … a collection of clips, plane footage and news footage put together just to make this film, parts are mute due to commentary and music … also has a more updated animation of the eruption which was originally put together by me, during the animation the eruption sound is mute and that’s because of how survivors described what they heard … let me know what you think.”

Up from the Ashes 

Seattle’s KOMO news marked the eruption’s 10-year anniversary with this documentary, which also talks about the area’s recovery.

Interesting First-Hand Accounts

“40 Years Later: Yakima Herald-Republic readers Share their memories of Mount St. Helens,” Yakima Herald-Republic, May 17, 2020

“MAY 18, 1980//40 years after Mount St. Helens: Readers share stories of cleanup, choir concert and camping,” Yakima Herald-Republic, May 18, 2020

“When I was 6, My Classmates and I Fled the Mount St. Helens Eruption,” by Austin Jenkins, Oregon Public Broadcasting, May 18, 2020


About kristipetersenschoonover

A ghost story writer who still sleeps with the lights on, Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies; her traditionally published books include a short story collection, THE SHADOWS BEHIND. She was the recipient of three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She serves as co-host of the DARK DISCUSSIONS podcast, as founding editor of the dark literary journal 34 ORCHARD, and is a member of both the New England Horror Writers and the Horror Writers Association. Follow her adventures at kristipetersenschoonover.com.

Posted on May 18, 2022, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’m old enough to remember the eruption. I was too young to understand anything that was happening (beyond the eruption itself because we had volcanic eruptions in Alaska all the time, but they were in unpopulated areas). It’s a totally different event looking at it from an adult’s perspective.

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