Rescues and Reunions: The Mount St. Helens Eruption

May 15, 2024 at 1:40 p.m.
Sue Nystrom and Mike Cairns during their reunion on "We'll Meet Again" – photo courtesy PBS
Sue Nystrom and Mike Cairns during their reunion on "We'll Meet Again" – photo courtesy PBS

Forty-four years ago, on the morning of May 18th, 1980, the world watched as Mount St. Helens erupted with terrifying force, triggering the biggest landslide in recorded history. 

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980


Debris, molten rock and boiling gas tore down the mountain at 600 miles per hour. 57 people were killed in this most deadly volcanic eruption in U.S. history. But lives were also saved, thanks to true heroes. 

The terror and heroism following the Mount St. Helens eruption was documented in PBS’s documentary series, We’ll Meet Again (originally broadcast in 2018). The series explores significant historic events through the eyes of the ordinary citizens who experienced them directly. 

Reported and produced by Ann Curry, the stories follow people on their journeys to reconnect with the long-lost individuals who played significant roles in their lives during momentous events in American history. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: I was reminded of an article Northwest Prime Time published in May 2018 about the remarkable story when I saw episodes of We'll Meet Again airing on KCTS9 this week. That article featured a daring rescue following the Mount St. Helens' eruption. The article was printed in our newspaper, but never posted on our website until now.

The extraordinary experiences of how geologist Mindy Brugman and hiker Sue Nystrom survived and were saved during the Mount St. Helens eruption were recounted in the series’ second episode, which also explored the women’s searches to reconnect with the heroes who saved their lives that day. 

Sue Nystrom’s harrowing and touching story follows.

On May 18, 1980, 21-year-old Sue Nystrom was on a weekend camping trip with her boyfriend and four other friends. 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. 

When it hit, Sue and her boyfriend 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. The other couple was 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. 

One of the clips you can view is of Sue Nystrom describing her rescue from Mount St. Helens by helicopter pilot Mike Cairns and why she wants to find him again - photo courtesy PBS


Sue never forgot his kindness and was so inspired by him that she joined the National Guard, just as he had done. Sue went on to a 34-year service career including two deployments to Afghanistan.

On revisiting her experience that day, Sue recalls, “I was overwhelmed and surprised at the depth of memory. I remembered the smell of the ash, the shock of the extent of destruction, the deep grief. It was like it happened yesterday and that intensity surprised me. I was also reminded of just how kind Mike and his crew were to us, how gentle he was with my dog and the suddenness of having such a life-changing moment just end with me walking away and he turning back to complete the mission. I felt like what Mike and his crew did that day changed my life.”

Sue Nystrom visiting the Washington State Archives while on her search for clues - photo courtesy PBS


This episode of We’ll Meet Again shows Sue’s journey to find Mike. When they finally meet again, he enveloped her in a bear hug, and she was able to tell him how much he inspired her. She was also able, at long last, to give him the American flag that she had flown in his honor in Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan. 

“I was almost certain that he was a combat vet,” said Sue of her appreciation of Mike. “And although I had an idea of what he must have gone through, I didn’t really know until I was deployed to Afghanistan. It meant even more to me to be able to hand that (flag) to him in person, knowing that, not only was he a decorated Vet, he was awarded the Purple Heart for his service in combat.” 

The same episode also featured Mindy Brugman's search for David Johnson's family. Mindy Brugman, who grew up near the area, was working as a scientist monitoring the glaciers on Mount St. Helens. Her colleague, Dave, learned how dangerous the mountain was becoming and saved Mindy's life by warning her to evacuate. David Johnson died on the day of the eruption while continuing his work, gathering every last bit of data he could to help save the lives of others.

Mindy Brugman - photo courtesy PBS


You can join Ann Curry for the reunions of people whose lives crossed during the deadly eruption. The episode details Sue's search for the helicopter pilot who rescued her from near-certain death, and Mindy's search for the scientist's family to tell them how he saved her life. 

Learn more about the series and how to view it at Information about the Mount St. Helens episode can be viewed at the following link:

A detailed account of the Mount St. Helens eruption can be found at this link courtesy HistoryLink: Mount St. Helens erupts on May 18, 1980 ( 

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