On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in Skamania County, Washington, exploded in what is seen by many as the most disastrous volcanic eruption in the history of the United States.
On the forty-first anniversary of the disaster which killed 57 people, caused over $1 billion in damage (equivalent to over $3 billion today), and killed thousands of animals, we are able to understand the colossal terror caused by the eruption because of photographer Robert Landsburg.
Landsburg was a 48-year-old photographer born in Seattle, Washington, who had spent several weeks documenting the volcano in the weeks preceding the eruption. On the day of the explosion 41 years ago, Landsburg was just a few miles from the summit.
“At 8:32 a.m., a 5.2-magnitude earthquake struck, causing an avalanche from the walls of the summit crater and destabilizing the northern face of the volcano,” wrote AccuWeather. “The entire north flank quivered before appearing to almost liquify. As the northern face slid from the cone of the volcano in a stony avalanche, a blast broke through the remaining barrier. For the first time in nearly a century, Mount St. Helens erupted.”
According to reports, Landsburg knew that he would be unable to escape as he watched the explosion. Instead of trying to flee, he continued to photograph the approaching eruption, even using his own body to save his film as the petrifying wave of magma and ash rushed toward him.
“Landsburg continued to photograph the eruption until the last possible moment, leaving himself enough time to wind up his film into its case, place his camera in its bag, place that bag into his backpack, and lay his body on top of the bag as the final protective layer against the shower of magma and ash,” wrote The Journal.
“Robert Emerson Landsburg, Portland, Ore., a freelance photographer. Born Nov. 13, 1931 in Seattle. Died May 18,1980, of asphyxiation by volcanic ash near his station wagon parked near Sheep Canyon in the upper South Fork of the Toutle River, four miles west of Mount St. Helens,” read Landsburg’s obituary.
The photographs Landsburg saved in his final moments were published in the January 1981 issue of National Geographic.
Slightly closer was photographer Robert Landsburg. After these shots, he used his last moments to rewind the film, wrap his camera in several bags, then lay down on top and wait. (Landsberg's car, right). pic.twitter.com/Tmo90CiAbD
— David Burbach (@dburbach) May 18, 2019
The eruption on May 18, 1980, is the most deadly and economically damaging volcanic eruption in the history of the contiguous U.S. In addition to the 57 people who were directly killed by the blast, 200 houses, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways and 185 miles of highway were destroyed. In total, the eruption ejected more than one cubic mile of material, with a quarter of that material being fresh lava.
The explosion released 24 megatons of thermal energy, of which 7 megatons were a direct result of the explosion. This is equivalent to 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War 2.
Ian Haworth is an Editor and Writer for The Daily Wire. Follow him on Twitter at @ighaworth.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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