Forty years later, the angry-looking ash cloud billowing above Mount St. Helens remains one of the most iconic images in state history. Those living in the state of Washington at the time of the May 18, 1980, eruption all have a where-were-you-when-it-blew moment.

Don Dillman.

Within an hour of the eruption, WSU geology alumnus Don Swanson (’60) was documenting the cataclysm from an airplane, flying in figure-eights on the south side of the volcano to film and take photos. On the other side of the state, students at WSU Pullman were studying for finals and doing everyday chores like laundry.

Don A. Dillman, now a Regents Professor in sociology, was roller skating with his wife and two young children. He wrote a detailed account, which the Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections at WSU Libraries keeps for posterity.

Swanson, now 81, went on to become the scientist-in-charge of the Cascades Volcano Observatory and, later, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on the rim of the Kilauea Caldera—where he still serves as scientist emeritus. But Mount St. Helens has never left him. He knew three people who perished in the blast zone and dedicated his career to better understanding eruptions in order to prevent similar tragedies. “I think about it almost every day,” he says.

Find out more

Washington State Magazine