When Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, 57 people died and tens of square miles of landscape were blanketed in ash and pumice. Now, more than 42 years later, the Forest Service says some long-lost artifacts from the explosion are beginning to appear.
This news comes from Matthew Mawhirter, archaeologist for the US Forest Service and heritage program manager for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington. Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is managed by the Forest Service.
“Objects are eroding from the landscape around Mount St. Helens that were there before the eruption,” Mawhirter told KIRO Newsradio. “Mount St. Helens upper alpine climbing parking lot is eroding the hill. We found logging equipment eroding hillsides [and] other items.”
“The landscape is starting to give back what it hid in the 80s,” Mawhirter said.
After 42 years, the reason why these artifacts are now revealing themselves is quite simple.
“Just time and erosion because it’s all pumice and ash,” Mawhirter said. “And so as the weather comes along, especially things on the slopes or those types of steeper areas where the erosion is more severe, you get those kinds of things that come out. We found another Kenworth truck eroding the side of the hill.
The presence of logging equipment – including trucks made by local favorite Kenworth – is no big surprise. Most of it probably belonged to Weyerhaeuser, and all the trucks, bulldozers and other vehicles were likely empty and just parked when the mountain erupted on that otherwise calm Sunday morning. Also, some rusty carcasses have been visible for years on the South Coldwater Trail.
But Matthew Mawhirter says there’s at least one item recently revealed near Coldwater Ridge that relates to a specific person – someone who holds a unique place of honor in the mystic, the stories and what one might call the “regional mythology” surrounding the 1980s eruption.
“We may have found an item associated with Gerry Martin, who was killed in the blast and nothing was found of him,” Mawhirter said. “But there are other things that are eroding in the landscape, some of them we have yet to confirm.”
Gerry Martin’s name may sound familiar to anyone who remembers the 1980 eruption or who has read the many accounts in books or online. For some, Martin is part of a small but indelible trio that would also count Harry Truman of Spirit Lake Lodge and David Johnston of the US Geological Survey among its members.
In 1980, Gerry Martin was in his sixties. He was a Navy veterinarian and radio ham from the Concrete community of Skagit County who was part of a network of volunteer radio amateurs stationed at lookout posts surrounding the mountain that spring.
Martin had parked his motorhome on a ridge about eight miles north of the mountain. He could look south toward Mount St. Helens and see the trailer of USGS volcano specialist David Johnston two miles away – two miles closer to the mountain. David Johnston did not survive the explosion and, sadly, neither did Gerry Martin.
However, Martin managed to calmly relay a detailed description of the eruption for a few minutes before the radio cut out and Martin, too, succumbed.
In the final moments of Martin’s remarkable amateur radio transmission, he can be heard describing Johnston’s observation post flooded by the pyroclastic flow from the crater.
“Gentlemen, the motorhome and the car sitting south of me are covered,” Martin can be heard saying. Then, as the static overwhelms his words, Martin says, “It’s gonna hit me too.”
Matthew Mawhirter of the Forest Service says the Gerry Martin-related artifact that emerged recently from the pumice and ash is an engine block and other vehicle parts.
Mawhirter shared with KIRO Newsradio a number of images of vehicles and equipment at Mount St. Helens from before the eruption to the present day, including a photo of this most recent tantalizing find.
“The last photo is of the motor from Gerry’s motorhome,” Mawhirter wrote in an email. “We are 98% sure” that the engine belonged to Martin, he continued, “which is good for archaeology”.
In the past four decades, no artifacts associated with Harry Truman have ever been found at Mount St. Helens, and those found that were related to David Johnston have been reinterred at the request of his family. Now, thanks to the realities of erosion – and because of the skill and dedication of Matthew Mawhirter and his colleagues – what could have been just a chunk of metal has the potential to bear witness and commemorate the final act of a remarkable individual captured in one of the most defining events in Pacific Northwest history.
Editor’s note: After this story was published, a local Mount St. Helens researcher named Steve Rosenow contacted to say that the engine shown in the photo shared by Forest Service archaeologist Matthew Mawhirter does not match this that Mr. Rosenow knows of Martin’s motorhome. Mawhirter could not be reached for comment as he assists with fire suppression in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest; KIRO Newsradio will share Mr. Rosenow’s information with Mr. Mawhirter.
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