LeMonds Interviews Eyewitnesses to 1980 Eruption

Jim LeMonds served as moderator for a series of interviews of nearly a dozen people who witneseed the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens up close and personal.

The interviews – which were filmed by a crew from KLTV – were conducted at Hoffstadt Bluff Visitor Center on May 16. The Cowlitz County Tourism Bureau will use the footage in a one-hour documentary that highlights the 30th anniversary of the eruption.

Leslie Slape of the Daily News wrote the story below, titled “It Looked Like the End of the World.” It was published on May 16, 2010.

When Mount St. Helens erupted May 18, 1980, Tony McElfresh was planting trees only two miles from the base of the volcano.

“We were young bucks,” McElfresh told a rapt audience Sunday afternoon at Hoffstadt Bluffs.

McElfresh, who lives in Eugene, said he spontaneously made the trip to Hoffstadt Bluffs to join other survivors of the Mount St. Helens eruption who were telling their stories from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Among the other speakers were Bob Baldwin of Longview, assistant district forester for Weyerhaeuser at the time of the eruption; Trixie Anders, a volcanologist who outraced the landslide and who has erected a monument to her best friend, Jim Fitzgerald, who died; property owners and helicopter pilots.

The morning of the eruption, McElfresh was with a group of contract tree planters working for Webfoot Reforestation, who began work at 7:30 a.m. on the southeast side of the mountain. The previous day, they were working on the north side.

“At 8:30, all of a sudden there was an earthquake,” he said. “It felt like being on top of a Greyhound bus. Somebody said, ‘Look at the mountain!’ ”

Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, the planters watched the action flash in front of their eyes without a sound. Scientists speculate that the pyroclastic surge was so intense it absorbed every sound.

“I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” McElfresh said. “There was a poof, another poof, and all of a sudden the whole thing completely blew up. It scared the hell out of us!”

Still soundless, thunderbolts shot through the sky and boulders tumbled down the side of the mountain.

“It looked like the end of the world,” he said.

They rushed back to their trailers, or “crummies,” McElfresh said, and drove to Marble Mountain. There they had to wait for confirmation that the bridges were still intact so they could drive out safely.

“That was the scariest part of the whole thing: ‘OK, guys, sit here inside the crummies and wait,’ ” McElfresh said. He had read about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and knew that many of the occupants of Pompeii hadn’t died of ash, but of poison gas.

“So I’m sitting here in the crummy, smelling sulfur and waiting for the poison gas to kill me,” he said.

The team made it out safely. But if they had been working on the north side again, they’d all have been killed, he said.

Instead, “we got the living crap scared out of us.”

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