Several times that spring, the peak emitted plumes of steam. Minor eruptions were recorded. Mount Saint Helens became the talk of the Northwest. Transistor radios crackled with warnings to steer clear of the area. Newspaper accounts quoted geologists that an eruption was likely imminent.
Finally on the morning of May 18, 1980, it happened. Mt Saint Helens erupted with epic, colossal force. Fifty-seven people perished as debris and scalding hot steam swept down the mountain’s northern slope, obliterating Spirit Lake. The avalanche traveled at 683 miles per hour and reached 572 degrees Fahrenheit. The blast also emitted 540 million tons of ash 80,000 feet into the atmosphere. That debris would eventually be scattered across 11 different states. It was the most devastating eruption ever recorded by modern man.
Neal Rosenau is a current resident of The Creekside retirement community in Woodinville. At the time of the eruption, he was a 36-year old TV reporter at KGW in Portland. “You could see the eruption from Portland,” he said. “But most of the ash was heading north and east. It was an exciting story because it was happening just 50 miles away. I produced that evening’s broadcast. And the next morning, I was dispatched north of the mountain.”
Rosenau had only been on the job six weeks. He and his wife Hedda had recently moved from Chicago. Rosenau started out as a weekend reporter and producer, and later would be promoted to full-time reporter.
But so much of life is about timing. And at that moment, the hungry, young reporter licked his chops at this impeccable good fortune.
“I had never been up to Mt St Helens,” Rosenau said. “I had seen it in the distance, it was steaming. There had been a series of minor eruptions. I took a cameraman north of the mountain.
We went off onto one forest road to a town called Morton. The ash was really thick there, covering just about everything.”
Rosenau first saw a teenager going down the street on a bicycle, a rooster tail of ash flying out from behind. He then passed a corral and saw poor horses with ash on their backs. “I interviewed the mayor,” he said. “He was concerned about where they were going to put all this ash. The air was full of stuff and you couldn’t see the mountain. And the Toutle River was just a mess.”
In the weeks after the major eruption, Rosenau continued to report on the mountain.
“I got a hankering to get closer,” he said. “I was dying to see this.”
Rosenau had never been in a helicopter before, but he was going in one now. The pilot was a Vietnam War veteran. When the vet realized he had a newbie on board, he decided to liven things up even more.
“He decided to give me a thrill ride,” Rosenau said with a chuckle. “He flew upside one ridge. When you hit the top, the other side drops off. Oh my god, the sensation of the world dropping away!”
As the helicopter approached the mountain, Rosenau fell almost speechless.
“The [eruption] had caused such devastation,” he said. “Flying over it, it was like someone had taken a giant comb and raked the trees down for miles and miles... It was a huge pattern of devastation. We landed across from Spirit Lake. From that location you could look straight into the crater.”
In early 1981, Rosenau’s rebellious streak came to light. He decided to land within the crater itself. The Forest Service had no idea of his plans, and they wouldn’t have approved. Only geologists and members of the Forest Service were allowed access.
“We convinced our pilot to land there,” Rosenau said. “It was a cloudy day. We got out and walked around a little bit. I started thinking `I’ve got a three year old boy and I would like to see him again.’ We took as many pictures as we could and then got out of there. It was the first time a newsman had landed in there. I had a sensation of great danger.”
But the itch to return to the crater struck again. This time around they sought approval and received it. A beautiful day greeted the small KGW crew. The helicopter dropped them off and then flew to a safe spot.
“We had footage of the helicopter leaving the crater,” Rosenau said. “It helped to tell the story.”
As the helicopter disappeared from sight, Rosenau stood in amazement.
“I was expecting it to be silent,” he said. “But what was weird was that there were loud pops and bangs. It was the sounds of rocks tumbling down the sides of the crater. We managed to walk around there. We talked to the geologists who were busy setting up their instruments. One of them had to climb the lava dome.
“There were times you could look between the rocks and see the glowing red of lava,” he said. “And the heat would go up your pant legs. It was truly an amazing landscape. Very exciting to be there.
“When we were done, we radioed the pilot and told him `we’re out of tape and tired and ready to go!’”
The finished product was a seven-minute story, quite long by industry standards. The story was well-received by the Oregon audience, and subsequently picked up by NBC.
“At the time I had been watching a lot of the David Attenborough series Life on Earth,” Rosenau said. “He had a remarkable ability to use himself and walk through something to describe a scene. And ever since with my family I have referred to that [St Helens] story as my David Attenborough stand up.”