In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St. Helens

Richard Waitt
WSU Press, 2014

Like the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, the personal stories of campers, loggers, airline pilots, Forest Service workers, and geologists came pouring out before, during, and after the cataclysm. One of those geologists, Richard Waitt, gathered anecdotes and recollections of the volcanic eruption over the course of three decades, now compiled in this tome.

Waitt blends his own scientific expertise as a researcher who had been on the mountain since its early rumblings with hundreds of eyewitness reports that lend human drama to an already dramatic phenomenon. Their experiences, narrated to Waitt, benefit not just the reader’s fascination with the history but can contribute to the science. As he writes, “I know no geologist scrutinizing the deposits could glean what they had witnessed being almost in the eruption.”

The sheer volume of stories speaks to Waitt’s dedication to the historic event and adds a significant piece to the literature and study of St. Helens’s eruption 35 years ago. These wrenching, terrifying stories of hot ash, mud flows, and panic carry the reader into the thick of the action. For example, Jim Scymanky, a logger twelve and a half miles from the volcano, told Waitt:

Then up in the trees I saw the top of a tall one jiggle and fall, and another nearer, then another. Rocks zinged through the woods, bouncing off trees… . It grew louder, like a giant locomotive, or like ocean waves but very loud. … Suddenly I could see nothing. I’d been knocked down and my hard hat blown off. It got hot right away, then scorching hot and impossible to breathe. The air had no oxygen, like being trapped underwater.

Some of us who experienced the volcanic disaster, even from a couple of hundred miles away, at times struggle to tell what it was truly like, even while its images and ash are seared into our memories. Waitt has accomplished an exceptional feat by pulling together the stories of people who lived through the event—and a few who did not survive—with the patience and thoroughness of a scholar and the devotion of someone who himself witnessed an extraordinary natural disaster.