For three desperate days in May 1980, Barbara Karr, a 37-year-old Seattle schoolteacher, listened day and night to news reports about the eruption of Mount St. Helens, waiting to hear what she was afraid to know. Her husband, Day, 37, had gone camping near the volcano with their sons Andy, 11, and Michael, 9. Finally, 55 hours after the explosion, her fears were confirmed by a wire service photograph of Andy’s ash-covered body in the back of their pickup; her husband and the other son were also dead.
Within the week her grief was coupled with outrage. Officials speaking for the state of Washington declared that most of the 57 people who died on the mountain had only themselves to blame. “All the people who were killed—I think except for the scientists—were there illegally,” said then Gov. Dixy Lee Ray. Day Karr’s pickup truck was found only four and a half miles from the volcano, and in retrospect that did seem recklessly close. But Karr was a seasoned camper, and his wife had checked with the U.S. Forest Service for him to make sure the area was safe. Adding to Barbara’s frustration was the criticism of neighbors who blamed her husband for the children’s death. “It was very difficult to have so much public anger toward Day, particularly because of the photo,” she recalls.
Since then a strange turn of events has confirmed her faith in her husband’s judgment. Last year, six days after the May 18 eruption, a Seattle filmmaker named Otto Sieber visited Mount St. Helens to shoot footage of the damage. He was arrested for trespassing in a closed area. Rather than pay the $500 fine, he chose to fight the charge in court.
Sieber, 43, and his lawyers based their case on an order that Governor Ray had issued on April 30, 1980, barring the public from potentially dangerous areas around the mountain. The governor’s office did not release a map, but citizens were led to believe by statements from other public officials that the order described a roughly circular zone with a radius of five to 10 miles from the summit. A map drawn by Sieber’s attorney from the complicated written description which accompanied the order showed something very different. The so-called circle contained large irregularities. Some 50,000 acres on the north and west sides, timberland owned by the giant Weyerhaeuser lumber company, were not included in the governor’s order. Extensive logging operations continued there until the weekend of the eruption. Day Karr and his sons perished in that same area, a popular recreation site.
Following Sieber’s revelations, Barbara Karr and relatives of six other victims filed suit against the state of Washington. They claim the state was negligent in defining the danger zones, and after the blast wrongly accused its victims of ignoring warnings. Washington officials have no comment except to deny any wrongdoing and promise a vigorous defense against the lawsuit. Still, Governor Ray admitted last year that she had allowed logging to continue for fear of jeopardizing the region’s primary industry. Three days before the tragedy, she also failed to act on an urgent recommendation from the state’s Department of Emergency Services and local officials that the danger zone be expanded to include the area where the Karrs died. To the south, the mountain was closed off for 12 to 16 miles. But on the northwest flank, where the volcano was visibly bulging and would eventually erupt, people could approach within two and a half miles.
Only three of the 57 known Mount St. Helens victims were inside the state’s designated danger zones. Karr argues that Governor Ray added to the suffering of the relatives by claiming that the dead had violated state law. Karr’s daughter, Robin, 18, was taunted by schoolmates about her father’s “irresponsibility,” and she supported her mother’s decision to sue the state. “A monetary award doesn’t change anything or bring them back,” says Barbara, “but it was important to clear the names of our families. Given the information we had, there was no reason to live with the image that they were fools who were there illegally.”
The case against Otto Sieber was thrown out of court. Now he is writing a book on the Mount St. Helens tragedy, and he believes the circle-that-never-was is crucial to an understanding of the sad affair. “The state got into the situation of telling people about a circular zone that didn’t exist at all,” he says, “because that was much easier than trying to explain why the safety zones ignored the hazard on the northwest side of the mountain.”
One week after the blast Governor Ray issued a directive designed to protect the public from future explosions. It set forth a new danger zone—a perfect 20-mile circle around Mount St. Helens.