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BOUND TO PLEASE / Sitting on a time bomb the size of a mountain

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterEruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens

By Steve Olson 

Norton, 300pp

When a mountain begins to bulge, something bad is likely to happen. In the spring of 1980, magma was detected moving beneath Mt. St. Helens, a volcano between the U.S. cities of Portland and Seattle. As the weeks passed, one side of the mountain began to swell, rising more than 90 meters, like a balloon about to pop.

On May 18, it exploded with more energy than an atomic bomb. The blast left the mountain 400 meters shorter and killed 57 people.

Science journalist and Seattle resident Steve Olson vividly re-creates the disaster in “Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens.”

In setting the scene, Olson makes long but interesting detours through the histories of the two entities that controlled most of the tree-covered land surrounding the volcano. One is the U.S. Forest Service, which we learn is part of the Department of Agriculture — distinct from the U.S. Park Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior. 

The other is the giant lumber company Weyerhauser. Its colorful history includes the tale of how its president in 1980, George Weyerhauser, had been kidnapped as a child in 1935. After his captors released him, he was re-kidnapped by a newspaper reporter posing as a police officer, who got “the interview of a lifetime” before returning the boy to his family.

In addition to its vast land holdings, the company had great political influence as a major employer and a dominant player in the regional economy.

Because of this influence, Olson writes, the boundaries of an official danger zone around the ominously swelling volcano were drawn to exclude lands that Weyerhauser was logging. The company apparently never asked for this special treatment, but it was understood that telling it to shut down a significant part of its operations for an indefinite period would be a major headache.

No one knew when or how an eruption would occur, but geologist Barry Voight (whose 4-year-old niece would grow up to become the Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie) was among those to anticipate it could explode sideways rather than up. He correctly warned of a blast like the 1888 eruption of Mt. Bandai in Fukushima Prefecture, which killed more than 450 people.

The middle of the book consists of short, gripping chapters describing the ghastly fates of individual victims, including a woman who was torn apart by the debris-filled shock wave. She was identified by her wedding ring when her arm was found months later. Most victims suffocated in a storm of searing ash. Some simply vanished.

Next came sudden floods of melted snow and ice from the mountain that washed out 27 bridges, wrecked 200 homes, and left many people in need of rescue.

After so much horror, it comes as a relief to finally read, “By the end of the day … helicopter pilots had flown 138 people, 8 dogs and 1 boa constrictor to safety.”

Where to Read

Anywhere near a volcano — and in Japan, that means almost anywhere at all.

Maruzen price: ¥4,470 plus tax (as of Aug. 3)

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