40 years ago yesterday Mount St. Helens erupted. In reading about the eruption, I came across a really crazy story of which I have a vague recollection from back then: the fleeting fame and subsequent death of Harry R. Truman.
Mount St. Helens Eruption
Before we get to Harry R. Truman’s story, here are some facts about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.
The eruption of Mt. St. Helens was a doozy. It was the most destructive volcano eruption in U.S. history.
- Ash shot up 80,000 feet into the air.
- Lava and blasted rock destroyed just about everything within a 19-mile radius.
- Fifty-seven people died, and thousands of animals were killed.
- More than 200 homes were destroyed, and more than 185 miles of roads and 15 miles of railways were damaged.
- Ash clogged sewage systems, damaged cars and buildings, and temporarily shut down air traffic over the Northwest.
- The International Trade Commission estimated damages to timber, civil works and agriculture to be $1.1 billion.
- The mountain lost 1,312 feet of height. It went from being the 5th highest peak in Washington state to the 30th highest.
- The initial eruption was not out of the top of the mountain – instead, the side of the mountain blew apart.
- It created the largest landslide in recorded history.
- Mount St. Helens blast released the equivalent of (depending on the estimate) several thousand Hiroshima bombs over its nine-hour eruption.
Harry R. Truman: Folk Hero
Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States. Harry R. Truman was the owner and caretaker for the Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake.
By all accounts, he was a pretty eccentric guy. He was known for being foul-mouthed and a heavy drinker. “He ate scrambled cow brains for breakfast and was a former Prohibition bootlegger who distilled his own whiskey in stills labeled ‘panther pee.'” Source. He lived at his lodge with 16 cats and various raccoons he befriended.
In the spring of 1980, monitoring by the USGS indicated that the mountain was getting close to erupting. In March and April of that year, an evacuation order was issued for those living within the vicinity of the mountain. Harry refused to evacuate even though he was ordered multiple times. He became somewhat of a folk hero for his refusal to leave. Many reporters traveled to his outpost and his fiery personality and scoffing at expert opinion earned him nationwide media coverage, “appearing on the front page of The New York Times and The San Francisco Examiner and attracting the attention of National Geographic, United Press International, and The Today Show. Many major magazines composed profiles, including Time, Life, Newsweek, Field & Stream, and Reader’s Digest.” Source.
Truman didn’t believe the expert geologists that he was in any danger saying, “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow “but I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up. This area is heavily timbered, Spirit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain is a mile away, the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.” Source. Truman believed that the thousands of trees and the lake between him and the mountain would buffer him from any effects of an eruption.
He was wrong.
How did it go for Truman when the mountain erupted? Not well. According to the Science History Institute, “near Truman’s campground a black plume of hot ash 100 stories tall went charging down the mountain at 350 miles per hour. The intense heat twisted the 250-foot fir trees there like scraps of plastic in a campfire.” Spirit Lake and his lodge was covered in 150 feet of volcanic debris.
The blast of superheated air that rolled down the mountain caused his death within a few seconds from heat shock and then his body vaporized. “So the last seconds of Harry Truman’s existence would have looked like this: After he died of heat shock, his clothing would have gone up like flash paper—his jeans and sweater and sandals all incinerating. There would have been a hiss as the water inside him boiled and his body blackened into carbon. Then everything would have more or less sublimed, jumping from solid to spirit.” Source.
What Can We Learn From Harry R. Truman’s Fate?
We tend to be drawn to eccentric characters who seem to embody the American spirit of individualism and freedom. That’s why Harry Truman became a media sensation and a folk hero. Yet, this type of ignoring expert opinion is dangerous. An opinion piece in the Black Hills Pioneer put it well:
America has long had a fascination with folk heroes who dismiss scientific facts, who ignore experts and scientists, who deny carefully researched data. It seems more prevalent today, with a president who ignores experts and stares at eclipses, rejects reports of climate change as icebergs collapse into the ocean, and refuses to accept environmental reports.
Men in large pickups, both over-amped, slam their foot onto the gas pedal to pour more black smoke into the skies. Senators hold up snowballs to dismiss concerns about global warming. Ignorance is cheered and scholars mocked. Reality TV stars are celebrated and high-achievers are dismissed.
Harry R. Trumans are all around us.
Fame is fleeting, and as Harry learned the hard way, facts do matter. I hope we all don’t end up with a similar fiery fate.