Rescued From Mount St. Helens

Episode 2

Rescued From Mount St. Helens

Aired: 2018-01-30 53:42 Expires: 2018-02-28 Rating: TV-PG

Join Ann Curry for dramatic reunions of some whose lives crossed during the deadly event.


About This Episode

On the morning of May 18th, 1980, the world watched as Mount St. Helens erupted with terrifying force. Debris, molten rock and boiling gas tore down the mountain at 600 miles per hour. 57 people were killed in the most deadly volcanic eruption in US history. But lives were also saved thanks to true heroes. And few know better than two women who were there.

Join Ann Curry for dramatic reunions between people whose lives crossed as a result of the deadly eruption of Mount St Helens. Geologist Mindy Brugman searches for the family of scientist David Johnston to tell them how he saved her life, and Sue Nystrom wants to say thank you to the brave helicopter pilot who rescued her in the nick of time.


Mindy Brugman

Mindy Brugman, 62, was a PhD student studying glaciers on Mount St. Helens in early 1980. The volcano had lain dormant for more than a century, but awoke suddenly in March of that year. Mindy was soon joined by scientists eager to study it first-hand. Among them was the U.S.G.S. volcanologist Dr David Johnston, who warned that the mountain was “a ticking time bomb”. A huge bulge was forming on the north face and David urged the local authorities to evacuate residents for their own safety, warning of the dangers of an imminent eruption and pushing for an exclusion zone. But few people believed it would really happen and even Mindy, who had grown up close by the mountain, did not foresee the danger.

Scientists took turns to monitor the mountain and David Johnston was at the observation point on May 17th. Mindy visited him, keen to camp overnight and measure glacier activity. But David knew the mountain could blow at any moment and refused to let her stay. His insistence that she should leave would save her life. At 8:32am on May 18th, the mountain was hit by a massive earthquake, triggering the biggest landslide in recorded history. It burst the bulge on the north face and unleashed the tremendous forces that had been building up inside.

David’s observation post was just six miles away. When the volcanic blast hit his camp, it left nothing but devastation in its wake. Heartbroken by David’s death, Mindy has spent decades thinking about the explosion and the fact that she could have so easily been there had it not been for David Johnston. Now she wants to track down David’s family, to acknowledge the sacrifice he made.

Mindy's Photos


Sue Nystrom

On May 18, 1980, 21-year-old Sue Nystrom was on a weekend camping trip with her boyfriend and four other friends in the national park surrounding Mount St. Helens. Despite being more than 12 miles away from the mountain, they found themselves in the direct path of a boiling hot cloud of volcanic gas and debris, which bore down on them at 600 miles per hour.

When it hit, Sue and Bruce were blown under the roots of a falling tree. Though they were unharmed, their friends were not so lucky. One was so badly burned that his fingers were fused together, while another was left with a crushed hip and broken leg. Another couple were missing. Later they were found in each other’s arms, crushed to death by a fallen tree.

With half-a-billion tons of ash raining down, Sue and Bruce struggled across a devastated landscape of deep ash and fallen trees, looking for help. Suddenly, they heard a helicopter flying overhead. Pilot Mike Cairns had been following their tracks from the air. The former Vietnam veteran and National Guard officer was one of several brave pilots who had volunteered to fly into the ash cloud to search for survivors. Mike comforted Sue on their flight to safety and she has never forgotten his kindness.

Although Sue never saw him again, she was so inspired by Mike’s bravery she joined the National Guard and went on to enjoy a 34-year service career, including two deployments to Afghanistan. She now wants to meet Mike again, to honor his bravery and thank him for saving her life.

Sue's Photos


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