On March 27, 1980, a series of volcanic explosions and pyroclastic flows began at Mount St. Helens in Skamania County, Washington, United States. It initiated as a series of phreatic blasts from the summit then escalated on May 18, 1980, as a major explosive eruption. The eruption, which had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 5, was the most significant to occur in the contiguous 48 U.S. states since the much smaller 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak in California. It has often been declared the most disastrous volcanic eruption in U.S. history. The eruption was preceded by a two-month series of earthquakes and steam-venting episodes, caused by an injection of magma at shallow depth below the volcano that created a large bulge and a fracture system on the mountain’s north slope.
There’s a well known photo looks like taken by a dead man among astonishing photos depicting the eruption of Mount St. Helens. In the foreground, a red Ford Pinto with a vintage motorcycle hitched to its bumper is parked on a dirt road lined with trees. Behind it, an ominous tower of ash rises miles into the sky, seemingly just over the hill from where the camera is positioned.
|Photo credit: Richard “Dick” Lasher.|
But for almost 40 years, the context of the photo appeared lost to time. Where exactly was it taken? Who took it? And how did they make it out alive? Or did they?
Dan Strohl isn’t sure where he first saw the photo, but as the online editor at Vermont-based Hemmings Motor News, he’s come across it a lot. The image is particularly popular in automotive circles—1970s Pintos famously had rear fuel tanks prone to explode in rear-end collisions, so for car enthusiasts, the sight of one parked in front of an erupting volcano made for an apt visual metaphor.
And the more Strohl saw it on message boards and social media feeds, the more intrigued he became. “It got to the point where I said, ‘I’ve got to find out what’s going on,’” says Strohl, who worked in Roseburg, Ore., early in his journalism career.
Last year, Strohl began scouring the internet for every instance of the photo, in hopes of finding a stray comment that might hint at who took it.
He eventually found one.
A guy on Facebook named Gary Cooper claimed an old co-worker took the photo. According to Cooper, the photographer was Richard “Dick” Lasher, who worked with him at the Boeing plant in Frederickson, Wash.
Richard Lasher spent that Saturday night packing some gear figuring he’d head out first thing in the morning to get a look at the mountain before it blew. His plan involved hitching his Yamaha IT enduro bike to the back of his Pinto, driving up to Spirit Lake, then exploring the area via dirt forest roads on the bike. He’d leave before dawn and arrive at the lake right at daybreak.
Tired from packing, Lasher slept in an hour or two past his planned departure time. He swore in telling the story many years later that sleeping in that morning saved his life. Based on the angle of the photo and the surrounding terrain, it appears Lasher drove down toward Spirit Lake from the north, likely dropping down from U.S. 12 and the town of Randle into the forest roads of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. He possibly made it as far south as Forest Road 26 by 8:32 that morning.
The time the volcano blew.
Had Lasher made it to Spirit Lake, he’d almost certainly have died. According to John P. Walsh’s description of the eruption, Spirit Lake “met the full impact of the volcano’s lateral blast. The sheer force of the blast lifted the lake out of its bed and propelled it about 85 stories into the air to splash onto adjacent mountain slopes.”
Had Lasher made it even over the next ridge, he’d almost certainly have died. According to Cooper’s telling of the story, “Luckily for him, and he did not realize until later just how lucky, he was on the opposite side of that ridge in front, because the entire forest was flattened from the ridge down, and he was in the lee side and protected from most of the blast.”
He did, however, realize that he had to get out of there in a hurry. Though the volcano blew out a pyroclastic flow almost due north and Lasher found himself more northeast of the blast, one map shows that temperatures near where Lasher found himself rose to 680 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the same map, most of the 57 people who died that day were positioned to the north or northwest of the volcano, but at least four of them were in Lasher’s vicinity.
“He pulled over and attempted to turn around seeing as the ash cloud was heading his way and fast. In his hurry he bent the forks on his motorcycle,” Cooper continued. “He jumped out of the car and ran up the hillside to get some pics, thinking he might just die for it, and hoping someone would find the camera at least as it was a phenomomenal sight that filled the sky. The first picture he took was the one with the Pinto cocked in the road and the bent motorcycle still in the back with that HUGE cloud going up in the sky in the background.”
“He made his way back down the mountain after being quickly overtaken by the ash cloud. He was completely blinded, and had to drive on the opposite side of the road steering by staying right on the opposite side of the road heading into oncoming traffic, but encountered nobody going up. The car choked out after a while and he rode his bent motorcycle out of the mountains back to the room he had rented.
“The next day as soon as he could, he rode his motorcycle back up into the now really hot zone with his camera to get what pics he could. He was well into the red no go zone, when a helicopter saw him, and came right down and landed in his path. He was surprised to be arrested on the spot and flown out in the chopper and to jail. They left his motorcycle lay on the mountain. They also kept him in jail for a few days without letting him call anyone or even plead his case. When he finally got out, he again went back up there, (Not sure how) and was able to get his motorcycle back and I think later his car as well.”
Some of those photos that Lasher ended up taking of the aftermath, according to Cooper and fellow former co-worker Steven Firth, focused on those who didn’t make it out alive and on the automotive wreckage they left behind. Both Cooper and Firth recalled Lasher showing them photos of burned-out vehicles with puddles of melted plastic underneath.
So, yes, the photographer behind that mystery photograph did survive to see it widely disseminated. Whatever became of the Pinto and the Yamaha, however, we don’t know. “So if you have a red Pinto hatchback with a lot of volcanic ash in the seams,” Strohl wrote in his article, “get in touch with us.”
|Photograph of the eruption column, May 18, 1980. (Photo by Austin Post)|
|USGS photo showing a pre-avalanche eruption on April 10, 1980. This view is from the northeast. (Photo by Donald A. Swanson.)|