KIRO 7 Exclusive: The story behind never-before-seen photos of Mt. St. Helens erupting

Salem Towne, a pilot from Poulsbo, is finally releasing photos he took 44 years ago - moments after Mt. St. Helens erupted.

We were flying over Olympia at the time. I had my radio on in the plane and I heard on the air the mountain just blew its top. I looked south and I could see it down there,” Salem said.

He knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and flew straight to the eruption.

We couldn’t have gotten any closer,” Salem said of the day he flew his Cessna 150 into an opening between volcanic ash bands to snap the photos.

A daring move because volcanic ash particles can make a plane’s engine malfunction.

That was the scariest part of the whole thing, because if that opening had closed it certainly wouldn’t have been good. But that was a chance that I was willing to take at the time just to see that mountain,” Salem said, who also has worked as a professional aerial photographer.

The eruption killed 57 people and blew off 1,300 feet of the mountain. It’s taken Salem 44 years to release the photographs because he says he knew the FAA wouldn’t have approved.

I was flying in a no-fly zone and flying through the ash. The FAA wouldn’t have liked that. So, I thought maybe I’ll publish those someday. I never have got around it until now,” Salem said.

He told KIRO 7 that even though it was dangerous, he doesn’t regret the experience and is grateful he was there to capture the historical moment.

“Once I got through it, it was certainly well worth it to get to see it that close and this was just a fantastic, experience all the way around,” Salem said.

He also said the devastation he saw from the air was immense.

“So many folks passed away and after seeing all the big trees fall and, you know, I can see how they didn’t really have a chance, you know, that that was horrible part of it,” Salem said.

At 75 years young, you can still spot Salem Towne flying his Cessna around the northwest. He says he continues to keep an eye on the mountain whenever he’s flying.

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