By Giovanna Breu Sue Ellen Jares
March 30, 1981 12:00 PM

The transcendent horror of his death turned David Johnston into an instant legend. Manning his U.S. Geological Survey observation post in Washington State’s Cascade range last May 18, the gangly, 30-year-old volcanologist saw better than any other human being one of nature’s most overwhelming spectacles. Before his eyes, an earthquake triggered a landslide which uncorked Mount St. Helens five and a half miles away, and David watched, awestruck, the continent’s most violent volcano in history. Since then millions have heard of David’s last radio transmission: “Vancouver, Vancouver—this is IT!” Minutes later a turbulent mixture of rock fragments, ash and gas engulfed David’s position. His death seemed the stuff of which movies are made—and, in the inexorable calculus of Hollywood, one has been.

In May, on the anniversary of the explosion, a film called St. Helens is scheduled to open in theaters across the country. Starring Art Carney as the crusty Harry Truman, who perished on the side of the volcano, the film will feature a character based on David Johnston—and the movie’s portrayal of the young scientist has incited a bitter feud between the producers and the Johnston family. At issue: a charge that David was a reluctant accomplice in a pre-eruption government conspiracy to conceal the volcano’s lethal potential. The movie’s executive producer, Michael Murphy, claims that “when the geologists arrived on the scene, they were under intense pressure from the local property owners and the lumber companies.” Murphy further theorizes the USGS withheld evidence the volcano might undergo a lateral, or sideways, eruption—as it actually did, claiming 63 lives and devastating the landscape for 156 square miles. In the docudrama St Helens, officials conspire with the evil “Whittaker Lumber Company” to limit the area to be evacuated near the mountain—and thus allow workers to salvage valuable equipment. In real life, the issue may be decided in the courts. One logger severely burned by the volcano has filed claims against the Weyerhaeuser Co., the state of Washington and Cowlitz County for $1 million each for alleged negligence in failing to define the safety zone. Other legal actions are expected.

The David Johnston character in St. Helens emerges as an outspoken foe of this sinister plot—and, in fact, the real David Johnston had warned of the volcano’s danger early on. “This is an extremely dangerous place to be,” he told reporters two months before the eruption. “If it were to erupt right now, we would die. We’re standing next to a dynamite keg—and the fuse is lit.” But in the movie scenario, David stopped warning of the danger after being chewed out for his candor by his government superiors. “This is just an indication of what was going on at the highest levels,” says producer Murphy, who melodramatically dubs the affair “Volcanogate.”

USGS coordinator Donal Mullineaux disputes this version; he claims that he only warned David to be “careful” in dealing with reporters—and only because he himself had been burned by inflammatory reports. “I just told him what had happened to me in press conferences,” Mullineaux remembers. David Johnston’s parents claim flatly that the producers have deliberately distorted their son’s career. “We told them that Dave’s quarrel with the Survey wasn’t true,” recalls his mother. “They told us that they needed to establish an adversary relationship in the movie.” The Johnstons (who live in Oak Lawn, Ill.) ardently defend their son’s employer as well. “To say the Geological Survey was at fault is to discredit the team that Dave was a part of,” says his sister Pat, a physical therapist. Adds geologist Chris Carlson, 28, David’s girlfriend: “David was as proud as he could be of his association with the Survey.” Pat especially dislikes a line in the script in which David is told, “You create chaos wherever you go.” “That’s a lie,” she says. “Dave was not irresponsible and he never created chaos.”

Perhaps the most bitter complaint the Johnstons have is that the film transforms David—a shy, thoughtful scientist—into a belligerent, daredevil rebel. Although he was actually planning to marry Chris Carlson, he is linked romantically in St. Helens with a waitress. Similarly, David told friends that Harry Truman, who died after he stubbornly refused to abandon his home, was a “horse’s ass.” But in the movie Harry and David become drinking buddies. The Johnstons also object to a scene in which their marathon runner son flies a helicopter into the volcanic crater; in real life, he jogged into the crater to retrieve water samples to test for gas content. The producers say that they have used “dramatic license” to enliven the story, but insist that their movie is very sympathetic to Johnston. “David Huffman, who plays Johnston, comes across as a dedicated scientist—shy, but committed and idealistic, reluctantly having to speak out,” says Murphy. Argues co-producer Peter Davis: “We’re convinced that we made David Johnston a legendary hero that all kids will forever look up to.”

In life David hardly seemed destined for such acclaim. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Washington, writing his dissertation on the eruption mechanism of an Alaskan volcano he had observed firsthand—flying off in a helicopter just one day before it exploded. Yet despite Johnston’s daring, his girlfriend says he wasn’t reckless. “Volcanoes scared him,” says Carlson. “You don’t become blasé about them.” But the USGS’s Mullineaux concedes Johnston was “less cautious than I am,” and a Johnston colleague and close friend, Pete Lipman, recalls that “whenever Dave could get a helicopter at Mount St. Helens, he was on the flanks of the volcano.”

At this moment the producers of St. Helens are discussing changing the name of the David Johnston character in the film—but the Johnstons say they will sue if they feel their son’s memory is violated. For their part, Murphy, Davis and their partner, Bill Panzer, emphasize their eagerness to reach a reconciliation. “The Johnstons are good people,” says Murphy. “They lost a terrific son under tragic circumstances, and we respect the bereavement which they suffer. We’d like to see the dispute settled amicably.” If it is not, the Johnstons’ attorney warns that they have decided “to pawn the family jewels” if necessary to wage a lawsuit. His girlfriend, who advised David’s parents to ignore the film, thinks that may be an overreaction. “I feel I don’t have to defend Dave’s reputation to anyone,” says Chris. “He will be remembered as the caring and intelligent person he was. Movies come and go, but your memories are what stay with you.”