Steve Olson’s “Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens” vividly retells the story of the May 1980 disaster and questions whether more might have been done to keep the 57 people who died out of harm’s way.
‘Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens’
by Steve Olson
W.W. Norton, 244 pp., $27.95
Thirty-six years and heaps of books, DVDs, articles and picture books later, it’s hard to imagine that any part of the Mount St. Helens eruption story has been left untold.
The title of Steve Olson’s “Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens” implies that much more about this historic disaster will be revealed. “Retold” might be a better adjective. Readers of previous books and articles about the May 18, 1980, eruption may find little new in Olson’s book. Controversy over whether the state took sufficient steps to protect the public has been explored in lawsuits and earlier publications. The science is clearly explained here, but has been elsewhere.
Fortunately, “well told” also applies to Olson’s book, especially in telling the individual stories of some of those who died in the eruption. For those who weren’t living in the Northwest in the 1980s, Olson’s narrative will resurrect the awesome power of the cataclysm.
The author of “Eruption” will appear at these area locations:
• At 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 7, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., in conversation with Steve Scher. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door (information: 206-652-4255).
• At 7 p.m. Monday, March 14, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).
• At 7 p.m. Thursday, April 7, at Phinney Books, 7405 Greenwood Ave. N., Seattle; free (206-297-2665 or phinneybooks.com).
Olson has talked with hundreds of people and plowed through the rich store of material about the mountain and the human events surrounding it for a dramatic retelling of the eruption that killed 57 people.
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He is especially determined to overturn the notion that those people were somehow responsible for their own demise.
This view, Olson writes, has roots in efforts by officials to deflect blame for not doing enough to establish a safe, no-entry zone around the mountain in Southwest Washington.
Olson quotes then-Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, who said two days after the eruption that people put themselves in harm’s way despite warnings.
Olson points out that a plan to keep the general public farther away from the mountain was delayed by state officials and didn’t land on the governor’s desk for her signature until the Saturday before the Sunday-morning eruption. By then, Olson says, Ray was off to the Rhododendron Festival parade in Port Townsend.
The limited-entry zone that Ray had approved earlier was drawn up by the U.S. Forest Service, which was careful not to encroach on Weyerhaeuser land. That meant the public could come closest to the mountain on its north and northwest sides, right in front of its growing bulge, which eventually slid away and uncorked a blast of rock, ash and hot gases. Had Ray signed the order establishing the larger zone, Olson argues, many of the people who died would not have been caught in the blast.
Like the court cases after the eruption, Olson fails to prove there was a special arrangement among Forest Service and state officials to keep Weyerhaeuser’s land open to logging despite the danger to its workers.
But Olson speculates there was no need for a spoken or written deal, that government officials would bow to Weyerhaeuser’s influence and money as a matter of course.
The book is most dramatic when Olson tells the individual stories of some who died in the eruption. That is limited to fewer than half of the 57 deaths, with no explanation for why more of these compelling stories were not included. While its claims of exclusivity may be exaggerated, the book is an engaging read that includes an account of the successful efforts to establish the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
Most important, the book can serve as a reminder that preparation is all that puny humans can do to counter the potential destruction of natural disasters. The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to earthquakes, and Olson points out there are 150 or so volcanoes that could erupt in Alaska, Hawaii and the Western states.
Given all that, we would do well to heed Olson’s well-told warning.