Saturday, May 19, 2007

May 18, 1980:

Harry Truman Dies

Not that Harry Truman. By a curious coincidence, the best-known victim of the massive eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980, was named Harry Truman. He was born a little later than the 33rd president, 1896 vs. 1884. While the future president was in the US Army in France during the First World War, the future volcano victim was in the US Navy, even surviving the sinking of his ship by a U-boat near Ireland.

He did not, however, survive the onslaught of the blast many years later. Truman had lived near the mountain since the 1920s, and owned a prosperous lodge on a lake. The authorities asked him to leave, but he refused, and even gave TV interviews in the weeks up to the eruption stating his opinion that the whole thing was (so to speak) blown out of proportion. Even if he did think the volcano was going to erupt, he probably had decided to go down with his ship this time.

"[Shirley] Rosen says Truman's unwillingness to leave the mountain had more to do with protecting his property than making a statement," wrote Mike Barber in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer 20 years after Truman's death. "Others say the headlines contributed to his refusal to come off the mountain -- he felt obliged to live up to his press." (Area resident Rosen wrote a book about Truman.)

" 'He felt, like everyone else, that he would be able to see lava start to ooze down and a news helicopter would come in and scoop him up at the last minute.'

Nature had other ideas. The searing blast came at 300 mph.

" 'One scientist told us Truman probably had time to maybe turn his head,' " Rosen said. Moments later, Spirit Lake was buried by landslides and mudflows.

" 'We figure he's 150 feet under the (present) lake,' Rosen said. 'His pink Cadillac, 16 cats, everything is buried with him -- along with probably a lot of loot' from the lodge safe.

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