May 18th is the 38 year anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. For those of us that lived and worked here, it was an amazing time. For some, when Mt. St. Helens erupted at 8:32am, time had run out.
Did you know that in addition to Dr. Dave Johnston who worked for the USGS – Johnston Ridge is named for him – there were also two ham radio operators on the mountain and lost their lives that morning? On a ridge two miles behind Dr. Johnston, Jerry Martin, W6TQF was also sitting watching the mountain for the Washington State Emergency Services. Jerry was a ARES/RACES officer and the state had asked for amateur radio volunteers. Also present on the mountain was Reid Blackburn, KA7AMF. Jerry and Reid went into the field to help the U.S. Geological Service and the National Geographic Society set up remote cameras in order to make scientific observations.
On May 18, 1980, Sunday, 8:32am, Mt. St. Helens erupted. Jerry was at his post 10 miles from the volcano using the tactical callsign “Coldwater 2”. He radioed in the emergency that the volcano had erupted. Jerry witnessed the devastation overwhelm Dave Johnston’s position and quickly radioed in the information. Jerry’s last words were “Gentlemen, the camper and car sitting to the south of me is covered. It’s gonna get me too. I can’t get out of here.” There was probably more but Jerry’s radio went dead at that moment.
Reid was a few miles closer to Mt. St. Helens than Jerry. No signal was ever received from him. Later that afternoon a helicopter found his car burning in several feet of smoldering volcanic ash. It was not safe to recover his body for three days.
With Jerry and Reid’s death, however, hams were not done. Dr. Johnston’s famous last words “Vancouver, Vancouver… This is it!” were never heard in Vancouver. Instead a ham radio operator monitoring the frequency recorded those last words. By the end of the operations hams had passed over 3,000 messages.
We do not normally think of ham radio as something one can die from. Jerry and Reid made the ultimate sacrifice by using ham radio to help. Let’s remember Jerry and Reid as we also remember the others who were lost when Mt. St. Helens erupted that day 38 years ago.