`This is it'

His fear of -- and facination with -- Mount St. Helens set young geologist Dave Johnston face-to-face with the volcano when she unleashed her fury 15 years ago

Allan Brettman - The Daily News

Dave Johnston soared above the erupting volcano.  It was his first love, that mountain. He saw a hodge-podge of rock and ash mix with acres of melting snow, then flow like fast moving concrete down the mountain flanks. Hot gases belched from the jagged summit, even though the initial blast - which he didn't even see - happened much earlier. Molten and solid rock fragments littered the landscape.

Johnston continued circling.

Even then, high above, the gases fascinated the young geologist. He knew invisible vapors leached through cracks near the craggy summit, escaping through fumaroles. How hot were those things anyway? Did they contain anything different than he thought before? More circling. The answers would have to wait. Johnston's plane was heading back to home base. Mount Augustine, an uninhabited island-volcano in southern Alaska, introduced Dr. David Alexander Johnston to the destructive power of volcanoes. He was on the scene shortly after the peak sprung to life on Jan. 22, 1976, making fact-finding forays on the ground and in the air.

Four years later, the lessons of Augustine would serve Johnston well when he joined U.S. Geological Survey geologists at a restless peak in Southwest Washington. Johnston was one of the few geologists who had up-close, personal, frightening experiences with a volcano possessing the explosive capacity of Mount St. Helens. Early on, Johnston warned all who would listen of the stunning, overwhelming power potential of Mount St. Helens.

This was not going to be a magma-spewing Hawaiian hula party. In contrast to the cuddly visage of the irascible, alcohol-sodden Harry Truman, Johnston was the guy pulling the needle off the disco. He wasn't fooling around. Mount St. Helens, he so cogently and accurately told the world in March 1980, is "a keg of dynamite."

The lessons of Augustine, however, would not be enough to save Dave Johnston's life on May 18. He was 30.

Fifty-six people were killed that day on Mount St. Helens and there was no monopoly on the pain caused for family and friends. The circumstances were horrifying: A photographer was asphyxiated in his car and buried in ash; a man survived the blast, walked 100 yards through the dusty haze then, choking on the fine particles, ran back to his car where he would perish; two young brothers lay prostrate in the bed of a pickup, covered with ash.

Among Mount St. Helens' victims, Johnston alone had to be there. And Johnston alone issued the most forceful warning to the public to stay away. It was a warning that quickly earned him a scolding from USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia. "We don't want to alarm the public," he was told. Johnston was perplexed. "But I'm trying to help." USGS geologist Don Swanson knew Johnston well. "Had he lived, I believe Dave would have dedicated himself to making sure the public always knew the dangers of volcanoes," Swanson says. "He had a real interest in conducting volcanological research for the public." Based on his Augustine experience, Johnston likely would have been personally anguished that anyone had to die 15 years ago. Through a twist of fate, he was the USGS geologist on duty when the mountain chose to unleash its molten fury.
Confronted with an awesome, thunderous, black cloud of super-heated rocks and ash, he retained the composure
to resort to his roots: Journalist. He reached for hand-held radio and reported what he saw.

This is it. It is 15 years later. Fifteen is a clean, round number - distant enough, it would seem, for the emotional wounds to have healed for those who knew Dave Johnston best, and close enough for the memories to still be fresh. The reality is a little more jagged, but not much. In his short time on Earth, the wiry volcanologist from Illinois touched dozens of lives with his boyish innocence, boundless energy and indomitable spirit. To his colleagues, Johnston represented those things that are best about the U.S. Geological Survey.

If, while reading this story, Dave Johnston sounds too much like a squeaky-clean Boy Scout, that's good. Because he was. Scouting probably was Johnston's first hook to the outdoors. That, and the camping trips to Michigan and Wisconsin with his father, Tom. Finding an easy explanation for his shift to geology is more tricky. Somewhere along the line he decided he didn't want to be a newspaper photographer after all.

He was born Dec. 18, 1949, at the University of Chicago Hospital, lived a short time in the south Chicago suburb of Hometown, Ill., and then moved with his mother and father to the house where the couple lives today. The house is in Oak Lawn, a largely blue-collar community about a 15-minute drive south of Midway Airport on Cicero Avenue. Today, this chunk of Cicero Avenue is a xx-lane strip, a bigger-city version of Sandy Boulevard in Portland. It's home to places like xxxx, xxxx, and xxxx. In Dave Johnston's youth, condo-free Cicero Avenue led to a community where family values ruled well before the term ceased being a way of life and became a campaign slogan. "It was a community that really enjoyed one another and really enjoyed their children," says Rita Welsh, Johnston's 7th and 8th grade literature teacher at McDonald Elementary School at 99th and Kostner. The school was torn down years ago to make way for a subdivision. "I've been in many places since," says Welsh, who has retired. "It was an absolutely delightful place to teach children." After nearly four decades in education, Rita Welsh will be the first to tell you it's kind of silly to try to remember only one child, especially one who was part of her early years. But she can, perhaps because she worked closely on class projects with Johnston's mother, Alice. "He was inquisitive," she says. "There were homes that followed through. David's was one of them. There was pressure in his home (to succeed), but it was meaningful pressure."
In the Johnston house, dad worked, as an engineer at People's Gas, Light and Coke in Chicago, and mom stayed at home in the early years. The son and daughter, warring parties as children, were confidantes later. Dave Johnston's bedroom overlooks the front yard and the elbow turn on West 102nd Street. Throughout high school there were no rock hammers on the floor, no posters of the Earth's cross-cut strata, no telltale signs of the geologist budding within.

Early on his identity was DAVE JOHNSTON/PHOTOGRAPHER
and, in high school and later in life, DAVE JOHNSTON/RUNNER.

"His mother was editor of the local paper," says Jim Newquist, a friend Johnston met in high school. "He was a photographer for his mom's newspaper,"and a frequent contributor to the school newspaper, The BowWow Bulletin. "We became good friends through journalism class and through running. We ran cross country. I was a junior and he was a senior," Newquist says. "He was seventh man on a seven-man team. We considered it to be the world's worst cross-country team." As an adult, Dave Johnston weighed in at 5-foot-11, 145 pounds. Those were his hefty days. In high school he was known, in his yearbook at least, as "Chicken Chest". "In high school, his one goal was to become a National Geographic photographer. That dream left him pretty late. The science aspects of it, I'm not sure how he got involved in it."

Probably by chance. He entered the University of Illinois in Urbana in 1971 to be a journalism major. But after a disappointing `C' in an English class, taken in one of the universities cavernous lecture halls, he got discouraged with that idea. Then he took Geology 101. He was hooked. He graduated with "highest honors and distinction" in geology in 1971 not by intellectual electricity, but by hard work. He spent that summer and next working as a field assistant on a mapping project in the San Juan Mountains volcanic field of southwestern Colorado. Pete Lipman was his boss. Lipman, who would bring his family out for summer-long camping trips while doing his field work, had an huge impact on Johnston. "I want a job like Pete Lipman's, a house like Pete Lipman's, a wife like Pete Lipman's and family like Pete Lipman's," Johnston gushed to his own family.

In autumn 1971 Johnston headed for Seattle, where he enrolled on a doctoral track in geology at the University of Washington. He began work on a thesis focusing on his work in the San Juans. He was president of the UW running club, exceeding proud that his times had improved dramatically from the "Chicken Chest" days. And he worked as a teaching assistant. He saw a woman, a junior, in one of his classes.

"He, um, had noticed me. And I lived just off campus. He told me later he was trying to find out where I lived. And someone told him I lived off campus, but they told him the wrong street. He changed his running pattern to go up and down 43rd so maybe we'd meet by chance. But I lived on 45th. So for months, there he was, jogging up and down 43rd in the Seattle rain. That was typical Dave. He finally got the courage to call me on the phone." Chris Carlson and Johnston were together, off and on, for the next seven years. There were other girlfriends as the perpetually-shy Johnston discovered  he could "like girls and they would like him back," recalls his sister, Pat. But none, Pat says, captivated Johnston like Carlson. Carlson, married to a geologist and mother of a 3 1/2-year-old daughter, is a doctoral candidate in geology at USC. Fifteen years later she can recall Johnston's geological work as comfortably as their poor-student days camping on the island shores of Puget Sound. They came from opposite ends of the emotional and geographical spectrums: Johnston, the intense yet friendly guy from the Midwest, and Carlson, the Texas beauty with the lilting voice to match who felt at ease in social situations. Eventually, Carlson ended up in graduate school at Stanford while Johnston stayed in Seattle. It was around this time that the Johnston's, with their blessing, would get gasoline credit card bill's from points somewhere between signed, "Hi Dad Johnston," and, "Thanks Dad Johnston." Most likely his car radio played John Denver's "Annie's Song." Over. And over. And over.

"One of his great passions in life was running," Carlson recalls. "Running, volcanology and, probably for a long time, me."

When the creators of the movie, "Mount St. Helens: Killer Volcano," developed a love interest for their Dave Johnston character, they created a chain-smoking, blond-haired, single mother floozy who worked as a waitress in a Cougar-equivalent tavern.
 The flick was a hideous joke and, despite the presence of Art Carney playing a sage-like Harry Truman, never made it out of the Pacific Northwest for theatrical release. It gathers dust on some video store shelves in this area. Good luck trying to find it in Chicago. The portrayal of Johnston's love life was only one of the movie's many distortions or out-and-out inaccuracies.

Carlson has enough stories about Johnston to make you wonder what a movie based on truth would have been like. She was in the front row when Johnston passed out while giving a talk at a science conference in San Francisco. "Dave was going along just fine. About five minutes into the talk he just gellified and he basically, he just passed out and crashed to the floor." The master of ceremonies leaped from his chair, looked at the unconscious Johnston and yelled to a room full of Ph.D.s: "Is there a doctor in the house?!"
The m.c. did a double take, then shouted, "Is there a physician  in the house?!" Then, "Like a Jack in the Box, (Johnston) leaped to his feet, changed the slide and went right on as if nothing had happened," Carlson recalls, laughing. "At this point he had everybody's attention. You could see him again going gellified. But (the m.c.) was waiting for him. (Johnston) finished the talk sitting down. He walked to where we were sitting and passed out in the front row."
The incident became legendary in geological circles.

A year later, Johnston gave another talk, this one to the Geological Society of America. The buzz among the rock hounds was not the topic but: The Guy Who Passes Out When He Talks. The room was jammed. Johnston the showman was up to the task. "I realize many of you are here not to hear my talk, but to see if I'll fall flat on my face," he announced, as he plunked a half-empty bottle of wine on the podium. He had drunk a glass of wine on the advice of friends, believing a little alcohol might calm his nerves, and emptied the rest for dramatic effect. When Johnston delivered his oral presentation for his doctoral thesis, prankster friends propped a stretcher near the nervous speaker.

He wasn't bashful all the time. "Not when he believed in something," says Doug Lalla, an Anchorage, Alaska, seismologist who befriended Johnston at the University of Illinois and worked with him in the early days. "One time in Colorado there were some guys with guns firing in a campground. Really smart. "Dave had this ancient USGS ID. He whips this thing out and yells, `Hey! U.S. government! Stop what you're doing!' "And I think, `Great. They're going to shoot us.' But they stopped. They put their guns away. But (Johnston) stays on `em, tells `em they're lucky they're not going to be fined.'"

Lalla introduced Johnston to his first "love," Mount Augustine, in 1975. Every summer 1979 Johnston returned to the volcano, eventually referring to its as "my mountain," and completing his doctoral thesis on the volcano's eruption.


Having relied on National Science Foundation grants for much of his research that benefited the USGS, Johnston finally joined the agency in 1978. He was based initially in Menlo Park, Calif., but traveled widely in the Pacific Northwest, working on his specialty of gas sampling at volcanoes in the region. When Mount St. Helens resumed its activity in March 1980, Johnston was the first geologist on the mountain. "He called from the seismology office at the University of Washington. (UW seismologist) Steve Malone and Dave were looking at the needle going off the charts. Dave was real excited and said he was heading down," Chris Carlson recalls.


A small swarm of USGS geologists and other technical experts set up shop at the Shilo Inn in Vancouver. For the next seven weeks Johnston was a familiar sight at a USGS observation post on a ridge  miles north of the summit. Commonly, he would be squinting behind a large machine on a tripod that measured the peak's gas emissions. He also set up the airborne measurements of the gas content. On the morning of May 17 a chopper left Johnston briefly on Mount St. Helens' summit to get a gas sample. A small quake knocked him down. The bulge was ominous. But he got his sample.

Within the close circle of those who cherish Johnston there is a sharp division on a recurrent issue: Was he a risk taker?
There are two camps.

Camp 1: He was not. End of story.

Camp 2: Hell yes he was a risk taker.

"Risk taking isn't recklessness," says Lalla, his longtime friend. "They're two different things. Mountain climbers climb mountains. They're taking a risk but they do everything to make sure they are safe." Lalla recalls Johnston's determined efforts to gather a wide variety of rocks in his Colorado research. The determination carried Johnson on rope-less climbs into "areas I wouldn't go." And there was Johnston sticking a titanium tube into a hot gas-belching crack on Mount Augustine to gather a much needed sample. To reach those cracks once Johnson had to dodge a rock fall. To get a sample another time he singed the hair off one arm.
He was 26 at the time. Later his gas-sampling would involve asbestos gloves, safety helmets and three-foot long rods to hold the tube. "I've collected gas samples," says Carlson. "It's a calculated risk. The sample isn't worth anything if you don't live to analyze it. Dave knew that." If there was a risk taken by being on that ridge on May 18, it was a risk taken collectively by the U.S. Geological Survey - which chose the site - not just Dave Johnston.

On May 11, probably during a gas-sampling, helicopter foray to the summit, Johnston asked somebody to snap his
picture. He wrote "Hi Mom" at the bottom of the instant Mother's Day gift and sent it to Oak Lawn. And he called his parent's on Saturday, May 17, to say happy Mother's Day just as Alice Johnston hopped in the tub. So he talked at length to his father, Tom. "We talked about how things were going. He said they were just working their tails off, seven-day weeks, things like that," Tom says, sitting in the family kitchen. "But you could tell he really was enjoying himself. Then he said ... then he said, `I love you, Dad.' And I said, `I love you, too, David.'"
Johnston had agreed earlier on May 16 to take over the Coldwater 2 observation post from geology graduate student Harry Glicken later the next day. Glicken wanted to leave to catch a plane to California to meet a professor and USGS geologist Don Swanson, who was supposed to relieve Glicken, had a prior commitment. Swanson would arrive Monday.
Johnston agreed to stand watch. Chris Carlson talked to him the night before he left for the lofty ridge. "He told me everybody was totally exhausted. They had been working around the clock. He said he hadn't slept much and I said, `I wish I was there. You could sleep in the car and I could drive out.' My impression was that he was eager to get out there.'"

He thought of Glicken as a newcomer to the volcanology game. And he thought Glicken wasn't fully aware of the risks of sitting in front of an active volcano. Johnston may have been especially protective of Glicken because he had hired the peripatetic neophyte to be his field assistant when he opened a USGS field office in Anchorage, Alaska, that summer. Glicken thought of Johnston as a geology god. Glicken snapped a picture of Johnston before he departed. Johnston is sitting in a folding chair outside the trailer and he's holding a field notebook. The sun is shining; Johnston is smiling.

He may not have slept much, but Johnston sounds upbeat and even humorous on a tape of his radio transmissions from the mountain. In the midst of the USGS chaos in Vancouver, he tells one colleague gently but firmly that the agency should help a get a helicopter tour for a University of Washington graduate student studying a glacier field. To do that the student would have to stay over night at the Coldwater 2 camp. It was decided the chopper decision would wait and the student would stay in Vancouver.

He told a USGS colleague the night of May 18 he had talked by radio earlier that day with a Forest Service ranger who was searching for a man parked illegally near the red zone. "He asked me at one point if I knew anything more about the volcano, did I have any prediction for the volcano tomorrow," Johnston says. "I said no, I didn't."

Don Swanson contacted him later Saturday. "I was wondering what your plans are for tomorrow," Swanson asks. "My plans for tomorrow are entirely up to you, basically. I think I'll just sit here and if I get a chance I'll run some numbers off the COSPEC (a gas-measuring device.)"

USGS geologist Bob Christiansen asks him later what it looks like up there. "It's very nice. Totally clear. You can see the mountain entirely. It's about 10 degrees Centigrade." "Sounds brisk but nice." Christiansen then asks what kind of gas readings Johnston got off the mountain earlier on Saturday. Nothing special, "but there is a little H-Two-S coming from inside here," Johnston says, referring to a human-produced aroma.

And on Sunday morning, at about 6:30 a.m., he reported some numerical data to the base operation. "That's all I have to say, Vancouver."

Based on interviews with USGS geologists, this is probably what happened next:
Dave Johnston sat on the folding chair and he enjoyed the view. He may have run some numbers on the COSPEC.

At 8:32 a.m., the bulging mass that had bulged progressively the past seven weeks slid away, unleashing an awesome torrent of super-hot ash, rocks and gases. Many people have interpreted Johnston's final words to mean: Oh my God, I'm gonna get killed. That wasn't it. He sounds excited, not scared. It conveyed this message: It's here. This is what we've been waiting for.


Then he says, "Vancouver!" but the next word or two is garbled and the transmission ends. The black storm of earthen fury reached him in about 90 seconds. Rocks nearly three yards across hurtled at the ridge, traveling a football field a second. Ash and gases heated to 1500 degrees F roared over the landscape.

Two thoughts probably occurred to him:

Get in the truck.

Run like hell.

If he got into the four-wheel drive International Scout, it probably got picked up and tossed like a Tonka toy, landing in the Coldwater River on the north side of the ridge where it was buried by hot ash and rock fragments. The torrential blast blew apart the trailer, probably tossing the wheels and chassis into the Coldwater ravine. Remnants of the frame and wires were found wrapped around nearby tree stumps. Swanson, the colleague, and Pete Lipman, the mentor, were in a helicopter the next morning, searching. "The area was so devastated we couldn't tell where we were," Lipman says quietly. Amidst the confusing slate-gray landscape, it was clear Dave Johnston would not be found.

"We're here."

Rick Hoblitt makes his announcement moments before maneuvering the government-issue Chevy Suburban onto a shoulder of Spirit Lake Highway, a short hike from Johnston Ridge. Hoblitt, Don Swanson and Dan Miller are visiting the site on this day in early May at the request of a reporter. With a funky mustache here, unkempt hair there, and a stuffed knapsack there, the trio look like aging graduate students.
They are geologists with the U.S. Geological Survey. They worked closely with Dave Johnston in the weeks before his death. Swanson, a colleague of Johnston's from their days at the USGS office in Menlo Park, Calif., knew him especially well. Hoblitt, Swanson and Miller are a spirited bunch driving to the site, flinging opinions back and forth about their latest research, the current state of the USGS, and the efficacy of five visitors' centers along the highway. But as they trudge up the loose pumice leading to the ridge, they're quiet. Clouds blanket the summit, a misty rain falls intermittently. A chill wind blows. They reach the top. Hoblitt speaks first. "The truck was here, the trailer was there," he says pointing at the ground. It's easy to see why in the spring of 1980 the USGS picked this spot for a ringside seat at the mountain. The view is splendid. Back then the outpost overlooked most of the Douglas fir in the valley below. A gravel road lead to the spot.

And it seemed safe. The ridge is high above the remnants of the mountain's last pyroclastic flow. A USGS scouting team examined deposits on the ridge and other locations, looking for signs of ancient lethal rock falls. "The indication was that one probably could survive here without any serious problem if you had a vehicle to be inside of," Miller says.

On this day - 15 years after the death of their friend - Hoblitt, Swanson and Miller are not willing to concede that hindsight is 20-20. In moments, with minimal prompting, they review the decision to put the observation post in harm's way. Hoblitt said he and now-retired USGS geologist Dwight "Rocky" Crandell picked over the site. Crandell and Donald R. Mullineaux are legendary within the USGS because of xxx paper that predicted an eruption at Mount St. Helens before the end of the century.
 "Crandell and I went out and went digging around trying to find for evidence of any lethal event that might have occurred in the past. We didn't find any," Hoblitt says. "But tell him what Rocky said," Miller says. "I, I think he said that he had a, had a feeling that a tragedy was going to occur here, or something like that."

,More silence. Then Miller speaks.

"We had decided to cover our bets a little in terms of this location and I had arranged with the army at Fort Lewis to bring an armored personnel carrier up here to Coldwater Two and I had arranged to meet them at the locked gate on the Toutle on the morning of May 18. "And I was going to lead `em up here and we were going to park it right about here, facing the volcano. I had five gallons of water, some gas masks and some other equipment that I was going to put into this armored personnel carrier and they were going to leave the keys in it and we were going to use it in the event that an eruption occurred and things started looking ugly here. That we would - whoever was here at the trailer would climb into this thing and slam the hatch down. "It was a big heavy armored vehicle. So we were one day short in getting it up here in time. "But to be honest, I don't think it would have made any difference. If it had been at Coldwater One I think it could have saved Reid Blackburn's life. But if it had been here, it wouldn't have made any difference, even if David was in it."

Blackburn, a photographer for The Columbian in Vancouver, was found in asphyxiated in his car about XX miles
from Johnston's camp, buried in ash up to his shoulders. They review again the historical danger on the ridge, they debate the amount of time Johnston would have had to live after the eruption began, they describe the black storm of rock, ash and fiery gases and they discuss a 1956 eruption on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia that was similar to the Mount St. Helens blast.

  Swanson continues: "The irony of his death is that he of all people thought the danger was greater on the mountain than anyone else. "And he expressed that to me the morning before. He didn't want to come here because of his experience at Augustine in `76, when he saw that eruptions could potentially be lethal far away from any place where it left any deposit because of the heat of gases. "And so, although that wasn't what killed him here, nonetheless he felt that this was close enough to the mountain so that he could be in this realm of hot gas. "It's really doubly tragic. If he had really expressed enthusiasm for being here it would have been different. But he had expressed considerable hesitation."

Tom Johnston decided only recently that life goes on after you are preceded in death by your only son.
About three months ago he plunged into the basement file cabinets filled with pictures, letters and other memories of Dave Johnston.

"He's the keeper of the flame," says Alice Johnston, gesturing at the large spiral notebooks her husband uses to organize the paraphernalia.

Johnston shows a visitor the site of his son's grade school, his high school and the David A. Johnston Community Center.
Later, while driving, he recounts something his grandson, 10-year-old David Johnston Ruthenberg, told him when he picked him up at school that day.

"I told him there was a visitor at the house who was interested in talking about (his uncle) David.

"David took me by the shoulder and he says, `Grandpa, I wish I knew him.'"
The following is a copy of an article from 1995 that was in the Longview Daily News: 
(used with permission)