St. Helen’s Repeat

All those people in the West Coast that have patted themselves on the back for escaping the early severe storms that hit the midwest, and the late summer hurricanes that have inundated Florida, the south, and the Eastern seaboard have had their comeuppance: earthquakes in California, and now it looks like St. Helen’s is getting ready to blow again. (Follow updates)

I thought this would be a good time to get out my old essay about the first St. Helen’s eruption, when I was living in Yakima and going to college. I wrote this for my online site in 1995 or 96.

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Twenty years ago May 18th 1980, Mount St. Helens in Washington state erupted with a force that took many by surprise, myself included.

A huge clound of ash moved towards the Northeast, falling on communities along the way, including Yakima, Washington, where I lived at the time.

I heard what sounded like a sonic boom…

In 1980 I was attending Yakima Valley Community College and working at a local photographer’s studio. Sunday, May 18th was a beautiful day with sunshine, blue skies, singing birds, and flowers everywhere. A really nice spring day.

I had to work that day, and was getting ready when I heard a loud boom. Now, hearing loud booms wasn’t that unusual in Yakima. The town is located next to the Yakima Valley Firing Center, an area of Washington used by the military for training exercises. Occasionally, one of the pilots training at the center would exceed the speed of sound, and a loud boom was the result. What was unusual, though, was that the birds stopped singing — all at once. That caught my attention, as the sudden cessation of sound was eerie, and unexpected.

I was living at my Dad’s house at the time and I heard him yell for me to come outside, quickly.

A huge cloud…

When I got outside, my Dad pointed to the West and it was then that I noticed this huge dark grey cloud rolling towards us. This was not an ordinary cloud. This was something new, and thick, and more than a little scary looking.

My Dad and I both knew, then, that Mount St. Helen’s had erupted, and the ash from the mountain was coming towards us. We ran into the house and closed all of the windows as quickly as possible. Just in time, too, as the sky suddenly began to get darker, and we heard, literally, a slithering sound, as if a thousand snakes were heading towards the house.

The next we knew, we were in the ash storm.

I couldn’t find my cat…

Our house was well built, but some of the ash managed to sift inside. It had an acrid smell that somewhat resembled burning plastic. The fall was so thick outside that you couldn’t see more than a few houses down, and the day had become so dark, so incredibly dark.

We turned lights on all throughout the house, more than a little happy and relieved that the electricity was still working. I then noticed that our siamese cat, Bonzo, wasn’t inside. We went to the door and called his name, but he didn’t show up. We didn’t know where he was and we were both concerned about him. Finally, I told my Dad I was going to look for him, and grabbed a plastic rain coat with a hood to wear to keep the ash off.

I’ll never forget walking through that ash. It was all around me, and I found it difficult to breath. I alternated the calls for Bonzo with fits of coughing. No matter what I did, I couldn’t keep the stuff from getting into my nose or mouth.

I walked around for about 20 minutes, looking for Bonzo. No luck, though. I couldn’t find my cat, and finally had to give up. Once inside, I found that there was an advantage to having been outside in the ash; the faint acrid odor that pervaded the house wasn’t that noticeable.

An ash mound with two blue eyes…

I had a call from my boss as soon as I got inside, with him jokingly telling me that it was okay, I didn’t have to go into work that day. I also talked with my boyfriend, and remembered thinking that if I was going to be stuck in a house in an ash storm, I sure would rather be with my boyfriend than my father. No offense, Dad.

I smoked at the time, and ran out of cigarettes half way through the day. Not that my lungs needed them, but come on! This wasn’t the time to quit smoking!

We watched TV throughout the day to find out what was happening. All of the networks had live coverage of the eruption so we were able to see the ash storm from perspectives other than our own. After all, our view was rather limited to a large dark cloud, and ash building up on the streets. The spooky thing was that the cloud would get darker at times, and we wondered how dark this thing would get before it ended. I got more than a little concerned at times. My Dad, though, is a retired cop, and not much scares him, not even a mountain blowing up. A friend of his was shot right beside him once, by a crazy old guy with a shotgun — why should he be afraid of a mountain? Nature doesn’t blow away people because it doesn’t like the way they look. It only blows away those that sometimes get in the way. There isn’t anything personal in it.

The news reported that many emergency vehicles were failing because ash was getting into the engines and fouling them. This was particularly bad because people with asthma and other breathing disorders were having some rough times, and ambulances couldn’t reach them.

During the day my Dad kept going to the door looking for Bonzo, calling for him. Finally, what looked like a mound of ash came towards the door and we could see two very blue and very pissed off eyes looking at us. Bonzo had made his way home.

The morning after…

The dawn did break the next day, and light shown on a landscape that could have been from the Moon. Ash literally covered every surface, and the only color that could be seen was a light, gritty grey.

Some vehicles were moving about, carefully, trying not to disturb the dust. The slightest movement would send ash up into the air, the stuff was so fine. Later in the day when cars moved more quickly, shooting ash up on to cleaned sidewalks, a couple of neighbors built up mounds of ash across the streets and wet them down — instant speed bumps. People do contrive.

I found out that the store nearest us was open, so took off to get some smokes. I think that walk was the oddest part of the whole experience. On the way, I could see bird tracks in the dust, and found the trail of a poor bumblebee that couldn’t fly because it was too weighed down with ash. Scientists have always said that the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly. St. Helens proved them right. That bee trail was the most distinctive memory I had of Mount St. Helen’s. I hoped the critter lived through the experience.

In the end

Yakima survived the ash storm and some folks even profited by it. My Dad used the ash in his cement when he created a new sidewalk, and others created souveniers made of the fine gray stuff. The farmers had a tough time for a while, but they like the rest of us finally dug ourselves out.

The Mall where I worked had left its ventilation system going, so we had a fine layer of ash on everything in the photo studio. Ash and cameras don’t go well together, and most of the equipment was ruined. Think Hasselblad and you’ll see why my boss almost cried.

The President (Jimmy Carter at the time) visited our community, but not many of us had a chance to see him — too busy shoveling ash from roofs so that rain wouldn’t mix with it and collapse them under the weight.

We mourned the deaths of the 57 people killed in the blast range, and were saddened by what had happened to a once almost perfect mountain, and surrounding forest. But nature recovers and people recover and life goes on.

This is one of the more vivid memories I have. I remember the sudden silence of the birds, and that dark, oily thick cloud. I remember walking outside, and the ash falling off my plastic raincoat; the loss of that beautiful mountain, and the people killed; how people in town couldn’t wear contact lenses safely for months afterwards.

I also remember the stories that followed, of people packing up and moving, masks over face, because all that dust was going to kill all of us and we had to get out now. (Of course, my Dad breathed plenty of it, and it didn’t seem to shorten his lifespan too much. )

And the tracks of that bee–I remember that most of all.

Ash Map of Fallout across US

St. Helen's after eruption

St. Helen's Today

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