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TODAY   |  May 18, 2010

30 years later, Mount St. Helens area is reborn

It was the deadliest volcanic eruption in U.S. history, destroying nearly 200 square miles of terrain. Three decades later, scientists are amazed to see nature flourish in the area. NBC’s Lee Cowan reports.

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MATT LAUER, co-host: Thirty years ago this morning, Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington state , killing 57 people and obliterating everything in its path. NBC 's Lee Cowan is there with a look at how things have changed since then. Lee , good morning to you.

LEE COWAN reporting: Good morning, Matt. Yeah, it was the deadliest volcanic eruption in US history , and it affected some 200 square miles all around the mountain. But scientists now saw that nature went to work almost immediately trying to repair that damage, and now 30 years on, they're frankly amazed.

Offscreen Voice: This is a KEX News bulletin. It appears the explosion we have long been fearing has occurred.

COWAN: It was 8:32 AM , a bright spring morning 30 years ago, when Mount St. Helens shattered it with both hell and high water . The eruption shot ash 15 miles into the sky. Hot winds moving at near supersonic speeds turned the forest into match sticks.

President JIMMY CARTER: It's one of the most devastating natural explosions that our nation has ever known.

COWAN: Fifty-seven people died, 21 were never found. Marianna Kearney , now 88, was one of the lucky ones.

Ms. MARIANNA KEARNEY (Survivor): We didn't know, you know, if we were going to live or die there for some minutes.

COWAN: She and her husband, ham radio operators, were camping in their van, monitoring the mountain's angry emissions. They barely made it out; a colleague of theirs didn't.

Ms. KEARNEY: Then the last words he ever said was, you know, I -- it's going to get me next. I'm going to back out of here. That was it.

COWAN: The eruption lasted nine hours. Its power shocked even the experts.

Mr. PETER FRENZEN: What we didn't understand was that this entire side of a mountain could collapse.

COWAN: Peter Frenzen , the chief scientist on the volcano, says it was that lateral eruption that made Mount St. Helens so deadly.

Mr. FRENZEN: If we had been here on May 18, 1980 , we would have perished. We probably would have had about 30 seconds before we'd been hit by the blast. That's what blew off this way.

COWAN: He's been working here since the eruption, but says these days he barely recognizes a thing.

Mr. FRENZEN: When we first came out here a year after the eruption, didn't find a single living thing.

COWAN: Nothing?

Mr. FRENZEN: Nothing.

COWAN: Three decades changes a lot. The mountain is now teeming with life, all creatures great and small , flying, crawling and swimming.

Mr. CHARLIE CRISAFULLI (USFS Ecologist): With the rate at which life has come back to Mount St. Helens is absolutely astonishing.

COWAN: A rebound that excites tourists, too.

Unidentified Woman: It's amazing how it's come alive after all these years .

Mr. SAM GARDNER (Resident): It's been 30 years.

COWAN: But for longtime residents it's no surprise. Sam Gardner knows the mountain is always alive, in one way or another .

Mr. GARDNER: Of course, when there's a potential that it could take you out any time, that's kind of exciting, but it seems to have calmed down a little bit.

COWAN: Calmed down for now. Geologists, Matt , warn that this is still a very young, very active volcano. And even though it's one of the most heavily studied, when or if it will erupt again, still a mystery. Matt :