St. Helens book weds science, personal stories

May 18, 2015, marks the 35th anniversary of the most recent volcanic eruption in Pacific Northwest history. “In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St. Helens,” penned by geologist Richard Waitt, marries scientific observations beginning with the first tremors on the mountain to eyewitness accounts of people who were caught in the cataclysmic blast that decimated 235 square miles in southwestern Washington state — and survived.

Waitt, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey based in Vancouver, Wash., was one of the first scientists assigned to monitor the dormant volcano when earthquakes began jittering the ground in March of 1980. The first part of the book documents the efforts by the scientific community to determine when, or if, the mountain would erupt, what kind of eruption could be expected and what, if any, communities were in danger. Waitt’s spare writing style only enhances the tension in the days and weeks leading up to the event, revealing efforts by local politicians, scientists and law enforcement to balance the rights of landowners, businesses and recreation enthusiasts with the unknown dangers of the awakening volcano and their responsibility to safeguard the public.

The remainder of the book documents the personal stories of people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time — scientists within the danger zone, campers, hikers, a school group on an outing, and the famous Harry Truman, who stubbornly insisted he would be safe if the mountain blew. Waitt realized, after interviewing a couple who had barely escaped with their lives, that the personal stories of the survivors could give geologists information about the eruption that couldn’t be elicited by studying the aftermath. Hundreds of interviews later, a more complete picture of the disaster can be told through the eyes of those who experienced it.

Waitt’s book reads like a thriller for the scientific set, but non-scientists won’t be able to put it down either.

“In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St. Helens,” by Richard Waitt. © 2014, WSU Press.

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