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The Producer's Story

Filming in a Disaster Area

  • By Daniel Hissen
  • Posted 03.01.10
  • NOVA

After Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, the story most people heard was about violence and devastation. One of the greatest natural disasters of our time, the eruption killed 57 people, sheared 1,300 feet off the summit of the mountain, and turned a pristine forested landscape into a barren, lifeless wasteland.

I saw it for myself in early 1982, when I visited the blast zone while an exchange student in Portland, Oregon. It was just a year and a half after the eruption, and I remember being totally shocked by the stark moonscape. One had to think of Hiroshima, but this was not human-made. How to understand it?

Mt. St. Helens spews smoke

The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens was the deadliest and most destructive event in U.S. history, but recovery is well under way. Enlarge Photo credit: © Joel E. Harvey

Landscapes tell stories, if we know how to listen, and that's what scientists have been doing at St. Helens ever since—listening, watching, and learning. Right after the disaster, they began going up to the volcano to seek other stories. The eruption and all that it precipitated—the massive debris avalanche, mud- and pyroclastic flows, and the subsequent growth of a new lava dome, among other impacts—created a real-time laboratory. Recognizing the unique opportunity for study, the U.S. Congress safeguarded this laboratory in 1982 when it passed the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Act. The act placed over 100,000 acres under protection to allow "geologic forces and ecological succession to continue substantially unimpeded."

A story of hope

During the next two decades, as I worked as a documentary filmmaker in Europe, I did not think much about St. Helens. But when I returned to the mountain in 2006, nearly a quarter century after my first visit, I could not believe how the sight of the place had changed. It was hard to comprehend that all that silent, dead landscape had become green, had come alive. Charlie Crisafulli, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist based at the monument's headquarters in Amboy, Washington, was showing me around the blast zone, and I was speechless because of the sheer beauty of this unique landscape.

I felt naturally drawn to this story of hope, and that feeling only increased when I met Charlie. Even after 30 years of continuous research in the blast zone, he appeared utterly dedicated to and in love with his "Garden of Eden." Charlie was the perfect protagonist for our film. He came shortly after the 1980 eruption early in his career, a 22-year-old, half-trained ecologist, full of ambition and eager to learn all that the volcano offered. Charlie is the only scientist who has stayed continuously with the site over the past three decades, sacrificing other opportunities to witness that miracle of nature's return unfolding. (Hear an audio slide show with Crisafulli.)

Charlie Crisafulli holds a gopher

Charlie Crisafulli holds a northern pocket gopher, a key agent in the landscape's rebirth. Enlarge Photo credit: © Josef Neuper/Interspot film

From the start, "Mt. St. Helens: Back From the Dead" was to be a story of the resilience of nature, set against the backdrop of the largest natural laboratory in the world. I joined forces with ORF-UNIVERSUM and Interspot Productions, both leading specialists in high-quality documentary filmmaking based in Vienna, Austria, and they got codirector Heinz Leger on board as wildlife specialist. Filming began two years after my first revisit to St. Helens. By then I had included a second main character in the film, geologist Jon Major from the U.S. Geological Survey in Vancouver, Washington. With him we would explore the volcano itself and ask the obvious question: Will St. Helens blow again?

In the blast zone

We had a chance to ask this question as soon as we arrived. Wanting to stay as close as possible to the volcano while producing the film, we set up camp within the 1980 blast zone. From there we had a full view of St. Helens, its crater and flanks etched by deep shadows in the long evening light. The mountain seemed vibrant, imposing, and very close. As we settled into our camp chairs that first day, a plume of vapor suddenly erupted from the crater. Were we in danger?

Spirit Lake in the distance

Trees killed during the eruption 30 years ago still clog its surface, but Spirit Lake today shows vigorous signs of renewal. Enlarge Photo credit: © Daniel Hissen/Interspot Film

St. Helens is covered with sensing devices, and the seismic forecast at the time called for continuous silence. But we were well aware that in the 2004 eruption, when magma again reached the surface, the mountain had gone from quiescence to eruption within 24 hours. So we were on our guard, even as we felt calmed by the purple lupine blanketing the pumiceous ground around the camp and the stunning view of Mount Adams to the south.

In 1980 it seemed as though St. Helens might remain a wasteland forever. Then one day everything changed.

Soon after arrival, the crew members, with director of photography Josef Neuper and camera assistant Martin Stoni, wandered off to find places level enough to pitch their tents among the young Douglas fir trees. We had brought all our own camping gear, including generators, a kitchen tent with cooking gear, and an equipment tent. Our second crew—codirector Heinz Leger, underwater cameraman Erich Pröll, and camera assistant Judith Wirth—operated out of a small camp down at Spirit Lake.

An icon of the blast zone, Spirit Lake drew my especial attention because one-third of its surface is still covered by a silvery, constantly moving log mat, consisting of burnt logs from the pre-eruption old-growth forest. The blast extinguished all life within Spirit Lake, but today large rainbow trout swim in this once again clearwater lake. A helicopter had to sling-load all the gear of our underwater crew down to the lake, including the bulky, 300-pound underwater housing for our second HD-Cam camera. We looked forward to two summers with five weeks of filming each.

lupine in a gray landscape

Beacon of hope: A purple lupine pushes up through the pumice. Enlarge Photo credit: © Gary Braasch

Life finds a way

On our first filming trip, it quickly became clear that what was once a place for climbers and adventurers had become a place for thinkers and dreamers, a source of ideas. The magic of the landscape is compelling. Charlie helped us understand how nature regenerated there, to see it, as he saw it, as a fight for survival. In 1980 it seemed as though St. Helens might remain a wasteland forever. Then one day everything changed: a single lupine appeared amidst hundreds of acres of pumice. It was the breakthrough Charlie had been waiting for.

The return of life that began with this lupine continued with a humble rodent, the pocket gopher. In the aftermath, the pocket gophers that had survived the blast in their burrows tunneled through the new ash like little animate plows. In doing so they mixed the ash with the organically rich underlying soil, bringing up spores of fungi that make it easier for plants to absorb nutrients. Wherever the gophers went they left fertilized and cultivated spots where wind-borne seeds could drift in and take root. Plant seeds landed on these mounds and transformed them into oases of fireweed, lupine, and thimbleberry.

camera crew underwater

Codirector Heinz Leger (right) and underwater cameraman Erich Pröll shoot footage beneath Spirit Lake's drifting log mat. Enlarge Photo credit: © Jutta Wirth/Interspot Films

In the crater

During our second filming trip we finally received permission to fly into the crater and touch down at different locations. Until recently, constant dome growth had made it impossible to film in the crater, but the volcano had fallen silent. Jon, our geologist, led the operation, and the views were breathtaking. Probably the most difficult thing at St. Helens is to understand the scale of everything. Not before you see a helicopter fly in front of the dome within the crater do you realize just how vast this volcanic landscape is.

St. Helens will surely erupt again. Charlie and Jon would love nothing more.

Constant rockfall makes the inside of the crater a hazardous place, and, of course, we were always on guard for a possible resurgence of volcanic activity. But we were reassured by the high-tech "spiders" that USGS geologists had recently placed inside and around the crater. (The main instrument box of each sits atop a three-legged tripod, hence the name.) Each spider pod contains a seismometer to detect earthquakes, a GPS receiver to pinpoint the exact location and measure subtle ground deformation, an infrared sounder to sense volcanic explosions, and a lightning detector to search for ash cloud formation. Volcanologists can use such networks to respond rapidly to an impending eruption.

Daniel Hissen and camera operator in the field

Daniel Hissen (left) and director of photography Josef Neuper inside the crater Enlarge Photo credit: © Daniel Hissen/Interspot Film

Geologically, St. Helens rebuilds itself at a fast pace, as another instrument the USGS placed on the mountain—a time-lapse camera—has revealed. From the post-eruption crater floor to its highest point, the 2004-2008 dome equals the height of New York's Empire State Building. A glacier more than 100 feet thick has also formed like a donut around the dome, the only growing glacier at such low altitude in North America. Because of the constant dusty rockfall, the glacier's ice shines black in the midday sun.

Watching and waiting

Nature tells us that volcanic eruptions are an integral part of Earth's ecosystems, and St. Helens will surely erupt again. Charlie and Jon would love nothing more. Charlie would welcome the opportunity to watch, for a second time, how the volcano's wildlife responds to such a natural disaster. Jon, for his part, would like to know if, with all the modern monitoring equipment at his disposal, he would be able to predict another large eruption well in advance, possibly saving lives. No one wants to be caught off guard again like we were in 1980.

Daniel Hissen is the writer and director of the original ORF-UNIVERSUM version of "Mt. St. Helens: Back From the Dead."

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