For months in early 1980, scientists, journalists, sightseers, and nearby residents listened anxiously to rumblings in Mount St. Helens, part of the chain of western volcanoes fueled by the 700-mile-long Cascadia fault. Still, no one was prepared when an immense eruption took the top off of the mountain and laid waste to hundreds of square miles of verdant forests in southwestern Washington State.Read more...
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For months in early 1980, scientists, journalists, sightseers, and nearby residents listened anxiously to rumblings in Mount St. Helens, part of the chain of western volcanoes fueled by the 700-mile-long Cascadia fault. Still, no one was prepared when an immense eruption took the top off of the mountain and laid waste to hundreds of square miles of verdant forests in southwestern Washington State. The eruption was one of the largest in human history, deposited ash in eleven U.S. states and five Canadian provinces, and caused more than one billion dollars in damage. It killed fifty-seven people, some as far as thirteen miles away from the volcano s summit.
Shedding new light on the cataclysm, author Steve Olson interweaves the history and science behind this event with page-turning accounts of what happened to those who lived and those who died.
Powerful economic and historical forces influenced the fates of those around the volcano that sunny Sunday morning, including the construction of the nation s railroads, the harvest of a continent s vast forests, and the protection of America s treasured public lands. The eruption of Mount St. Helens revealed how the past is constantly present in the lives of us all. At the same time, it transformed volcanic science, the study of environmental resilience, and, ultimately, our perceptions of what it will take to survive on an increasingly dangerous planet.
Rich with vivid personal stories of lumber tycoons, loggers, volcanologists, and conservationists, Eruption delivers a spellbinding narrative built from the testimonies of those closest to the disaster, and an epic tale of our fraught relationship with the natural world."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-01-11
- Reviewer: Staff
Olson (Count Down) brings cinematic structure to descriptions of the events surrounding the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, finding in them a lesson for those tasked with mitigating the effects of future disasters. He sets the scene by presenting the history of the U.S. Forest Service and describing the growth of Weyerhaeuser, a forest-products company that owned much of the land around the mountain. Olson also introduces geologists and their attempts to convey the extent of the volcano’s capabilities once it began to rumble in March. A group led by the Forest Service proposed restricting areas, authorized by governor Dixy Lee Ray, but they left land owned by Weyerhaeuser unrestricted despite its proximity to an ominous bulge in the mountain’s side. With the danger clear to readers, Olson follows the individuals who were near the mountain on the night before the eruption, reconstructing the final moments of those who died and the paths that the survivors took to where they could be rescued. He concludes with descriptions of the explosion’s aftermath, the establishment of the national monument, and the scientific advances based on research on the eruption. Making it clear that these deaths could have been prevented by properly established restricted areas, Olson takes a detailed and human-centered look at a terrible disaster. Agent: Raphael Sagalyn, ICM/Sagalyn. (Mar.)
Before and after Mount St. Helens
I was 5 years old when Mount St. Helens blew its top in southwest Washington State in 1980. Although I lived nearly 300 miles away, I remember my hometown of Spokane going dark in the middle of that Sunday and ash falling from the sky like eerie, gray snow.
Everyone who experienced the massive blast remembers that 57 people died that day. But what struck me after reading Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens is that, aside from the famously cantankerous octogenarian Harry Truman, who refused to leave his lodge near the mountain, we know very little about those who died. We assume that they took unnecessary risks that cost them their lives.
In this captivating and damning book, Steve Olson examines why people were near the mountain despite warnings from geologists after a series of quakes and smaller eruptions. Government officials didn’t want to appear overzealous or hurt the already shaky timber industry by overstating the danger zone. The resulting hazard map made it appear that people could get close to the mountain on the west and northwest sides and be safe. That misleading information would have deadly consequences.
Dozens of individuals who thought they were following the rules ventured dangerously near the volcano to camp, hike or simply take a curious peek at the awakening mountain. They were unaware that a blast would flatten the landscape for miles around, sending a cloud of searing crushed pumice zooming over the nearby ridges. One couple was camping nine miles away from the summit of the mountain. The husband, John Killian, was never found. His wife’s left arm was recovered months later. Many of the victims burned to death or were suffocated by the blast cloud. Others were crushed by falling debris.
Olson, an award-winning science writer, brings a new perspective to the navigation of natural disasters, drawing a clear picture of how industry and politics affected who lived and died that day. Eruption is an eye-opening and dramatic read that reminds us of nature’s power and unpredictability—and our human propensity for underestimating it.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Olson about Eruption.