Always Ready: Eruption at Mt. St. Helens

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“It turned darker than midnight.”

On the morning of May 18, 1980, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake shook Mt. St. Helens, causing an eruption of hot smoke and ash to shoot 80,000 feet into the air over the southwestern part of Washington state.  

Pete Holmberg, a former aeroscout in a cavalry unit in Vietnam, was a captain and platoon leader for the Washington Army National Guard’s 541st Aerial Attack Helicopter Company at the time.

Holmberg’s unit was at annual training at Yakima Training Center, taking a readiness class when the eruption occurred. After receiving a call, Holmberg briefed his soldiers, instructing them to grab essential belongings and take helicopters to Ft. Lewis as quickly as possible to beat the oncoming cloud of ash. Holmberg remembers just barely getting 20 helicopters out of Yakima before the ash made it too difficult to see. The rest were stuck.

“The visibility was beyond zero,” Holmberg says. He remembers a “cauliflower-like column of smoke going up as far as you could see.” There was lightning, thunder and the never-ending shower of fine, powdery ash that covered the ground several feet deep. The blast had blown off the top and the north side of the mountain. A mix of rock, dust and melted glacier then flowed down the mountainside, knocking over everything in its path. The flow was between 800 and 900 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Throughout the spring of 1980, the mountain had been rumbling, and the snow fields around the top became black with the ash and smoke. Scientists predicted an eruption for mid-May. Many roadblocks were erected and area residents were warned to evacuate. Two months before the eruption, the Washington National Guard spent a drill weekend establishing operations in the event of an explosion.

Diane Williams, a flight operations specialist at the time of the eruption, was in an Officer Candidate School interview in Tacoma when the mountain erupted. She was asked about current events.

“I was able to answer that question,” Williams says, laughing. She had planned to join her unit in Yakima later that day. Immediately after her interview, Williams opened up the flight facility at Ft. Lewis for the crews, who made their way slowly through the falling ash, arriving in late morning.

“It went from a beautiful day to very dark,” she says. The topography had changed so much with the explosion that maps were useless. After some helicopter maintenance, pilots were dispatched for rescue missions, sometimes flying slowly from treetop to treetop to avoid kicking up the heavy layer of ash on the forest floor. Closer to the mountain, trees were flattened, their limbs disintegrated in the hot blast.

“They looked like toothpicks that just fell in one direction out of a container,” Williams says. Overturned logging trucks resembled Tonka toys. “It was weird and eerie.”

Williams used a radio to keep in contact with her aviators, many of whom were Vietnam veterans. The pilots did dangerous, critical rescue missions the day of the eruption. At night, they kept copious notes and logs of their work. They had Huey gunships, fast aircraft that had trouble hovering or taking off from constricted areas. Even so, Holmberg says his unit performed most of the rescues, most of them on the first day.

“They knew how to improvise,” Holmberg says of the pilots. The second day, after sleeping on a floor at Ft. Lewis, they headed out again, establishing bases at high school football fields and a local airport.

Both Williams and Holmberg dealt with press questions and fielded requests from family and friends of victims who appeared at their bases. The soldiers learned about locations of possible survivors through these requests.  

Other units came to help out, including a Coast Guard unit and one from the Oregon Air Guard.   

“We were grateful to have a real-life mission,” Holmberg says. The war-experienced veterans were used to improvising and dealing with odds in dangerous situations. “Soldiers fight the way they’re trained, and we did what we’d been trained to do.”

“We’re talking about our family, our friends, our neighbors, our community,” Williams says. She remembers no grumbling, but an overall sense of keeping a smooth mission to protect as many people as possible. Over 100 people were saved by the Guard in the first days after the explosion. Four dogs, one boa constrictor and one cake (sitting inside an evacuated house) also made it out thanks to the helicopter rescues, Williams says.

“It was very challenging,” Williams recalls. There were a number of lives lost that first day. About 57 people perished in the eruption and landslide.

The eruption of Mt. St. Helens is one of the best examples we have of the importance of the National Guard in peacetime and during a domestic disaster. NGAUS works every day to preserve the benefits and equipment of our brave citizen-soldiers to keep them “Always Ready, Always There.”

Retired Col. Pete Holmberg served as the Department of Natural Resources’ Silviculturist, studying tree diseases and pests. He now teaches scuba diving part-time at Ft. Lewis. Retired LTC Diane Williams went on to Officer Candidate School and Flight School and became the very first female flight facilities commander in the nation.

Watch more about the Mt. St. Helens eruption and National Guard response in the Washington National Guard's Youtube video here.

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