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Mount St. Helens memories: Ash

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Editor’s note: Readers submitted the following stories about the ash fallout from the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980.

Greenhouse was like a cave

At first it looked like we were going to have the mother of all thunderstorms. The neighbor’s family was trying to plant his garden, but they had to quit by 2:30 p.m., because it was so dark.

When the ash started falling, it was like a snowstorm — the sound was dampened. The next morning it looked like a lunar landscape.

Walking into our greenhouse was like walking into a cave; it was dark except for light coming in the end walls. It took a week to wash all the ash from the roof so light could come in again.

The roses didn’t seem to suffer very much. I find it interesting that if you know where to look, you can still find traces of ash along Interstate 90 around Ritzville.

Anne Jacobson Williamson

Volcano Posse ventured out after a week

I remember when the ash started falling it looked like snow and we were all enchanted with how light it was. My dad grabbed three of us and headed to the grocery store. It was madness, everyone stocking up on everything. Dad gave each of us a cart and told us to fill them up. By the time we left the store the sky was black even though it was only midday.

After a week stuck in the house, my brother and his friends all went out in the ash with bandannas on their faces. They looked like the Volcano Posse. When they allowed us back to school we all had to wear doctor’s masks whenever we were coming or going.

The fine ash covered everything and we found it in our china cabinet up to 10 years later.

Kathleen Sullivan, Spokane

Photo by J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review

The old man and Mount St. Helens

My neighbor told me about Mt. St. Helens going off. We stood together looking west, watching the sky darken as the ash cloud approached. Out of curiosity I decided to walk downtown which wasn’t far. As I set off I grabbed a dust mask and navy surplus poncho. The sky slowly went black and falling ash began to lightly swirl about. Downtown, the ash had accumulated and a car driving by would leave a rooster tail of ash behind.

Most of downtown seemed deserted as people stayed indoors. Yet on the corner of Main and Howard by the Bon Marche sat an elderly man dressed in a suit and wide-brimmed hat. His arms were outstretched before him with his clasped hands resting on a cane. A neat pile of ash circled the brim of his hat. It looked as if some prankster had dumped a bag of Portland cement over the old man. Staring straight ahead, he calmly surveyed the apocalyptic-looking landscape. By this time I was wearing my mask and had the hood of the poncho up. Leaning over to speak with the old man, I asked if he was OK. He said, “Sure! This is nothing. I was in the war!”

I suppose he meant World War ll but I didn’t ask. I just moved on, marveling at him and what I was seeing.

Dave Sweeny

Shoulder to shoulder with mall merchants for clean-up

I had just finished planting the garden when the black cloud came over our home in the Paradise Grange area out near Spangle.

I had a test kit and found the ash to be neutral, neither an acid nor a base. I planted seeds in various mixtures and all seemed to grow satisfactorily, except for the straight ash, which seemed to choke off air to the soil.

We had the children draw facial characteristics on their dust masks, making light of it, so they would not be afraid when they went out to do their chores.

The next morning was dull gray everywhere one looked and absolutely silent. I could see tiny bug tracks in the fine dust.

I had to find backroads to get in to work as a maintenance supervisor for McCarthy Management, the company that had responsibility for Northtown, University City, the Northtown Office Building and many other commercial properties. The police declared that no one was to travel over the roads due to the dust that was stirred up and the tendency for air filters to get plugged. But the city also said that businesses were not to reopen until they had removed the ash.

Fire hoses in the office building that had been undisturbed for many, many years disappeared overnight, taken by those who thought they could just wash the ash down the drain. We could not find hoses, nozzles or fire hydrant wrenches as they had all been snapped up, leaving the suppliers with empty shelves.

Washing did not work very well. The ash would move under a direct stream, but it settled out immediately once the force of water stopped. It could not be pushed into piles as the angle of repose was very slight; it just would not stack up.

At first I called upon the parking lot cleaning companies that I had always used, but they were overwhelmed. The vacuum trucks would pick up the ash but it was so fine that it just blew back into the air.

The merchants at the shopping centers looked to me to get the lots cleaned so that they could re-open their stores. I had a very few maintenance personnel and we just could not do the clean-up alone.

After just a few nights we found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with Jim Pounder, Claire Jones from Harvey’s, the staff of Pehl’s Barber Shop and many other Northtown merchants. We used 3-foot floor squeegees, some brooms and grain shovels to bag up the ash or to shovel it into the back of pickup trucks.

Northtown was able to open the next day, although we basically ignored the city’s proclamation that the roofs, too, must be cleaned. Northtown was, at the time, only one story, but it would have been too dangerous and would cause too much damage to try to remove ash from the gravel-covered asphalt roof.

I had a short telephone interview with a reporter from a shopping center trade journal based in Florida. They were thrilled when I sent them a Band-Aid box of ash that they eagerly passed around and shared among their staffers.

Jack Cady

Stuck in Coeur d’Alene, spinning cookies

I had just finished spring semester at the University of Idaho in Moscow. I had gone to Coeur d’Alene with a friend to work on some car projects at his parents’ house. We heard the news of the eruption on the radio while working on the cars. The sky turned extremely dark, like the middle of the night, but it was the middle of the afternoon. Then, the ash started to fall like a very fine snowfall. Like a snowfall, everything became extremely quiet and still.

There were confusing reports on the radio about inhaling the ash or getting it in your eyes, so we decided to go inside to stay out of it. The ash continued to fall for hours and ended up a few inches deep. Having watched the Apollo moon landings in the ’60s on TV, it made me think that this was what being on the moon might be like because of the uniform, grey color.

The next day, Highway 95 between Coeur d’Alene and Moscow was closed, so I was stuck at my friend’s house for three days. After a few “unscientific” experiments, we soon dismissed the dangers of being exposed to the ash and took one of the older cars, a 1962 Pontiac Catalina, out to explore Coeur d’Alene.

I remember it being extremely still and quiet and again, like after a snowstorm, the sounds of the tires and engine were muffled. We spun a few cookies in an empty parking lot and raised an impressive cloud of dust.

Eventually 95 opened, and we made our way back to Moscow to our summer jobs. When I got home, my 1969 Chevy Nova was coated in a pristine 2 inches of ash. I scraped the ash into a quart applesauce jar, which I have to this day.

Another vivid memory I have is standing in the shower after being out in the dust and watching the grey ash run down the drain. I am always reminded of this whenever I see Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety” shower scene spoofing “Psycho,” where the newspaper ink washes down the drain.

Erick Keating, Spokane

Just because it looked like snow didn’t mean it was cold

Our daughter Christi was 3 and our son Jeff was 7. My parents had come from Yakima for the weekend and on Sunday morning we took a walk to Manito Park to see the spring blossoms. As we rested on a hill, we noticed huge, black clouds coming, and decided to hustle back before the storm came… a storm that had not been forecast by Ira Joe Fisher on KHQ.

We arrived home just as the ash started falling, and my husband, certain that since it looked like snow, it must be cold, went to the basement and started a fire, which quickly drove us out of the house with the heat. We finally turned on the news and heard about the eruption and that no-one was supposed to be on the highway. 

My mom, a teacher, was certain that was incorrect, so they went ahead and packed up to go. About the time they were ready to leave, we got a call from my father-in-law in Sunnyside, who told us to have them stay put because things were a mess there, too. As it turned out, my parents were here for five days, helping us shovel, hose down, and deal with the ash in whatever way we were told that day, wearing masks to cover our faces the whole time.

 Silence, grey landscapes, no bees, empty streets, and heavy, heavy ash… it was a very confusing time with conflicting information constantly being broadcast about the effects of the ash. But it was also a community-building time, with neighbors helping neighbors, friends and relatives working together, and a time to realize that we are not in charge — Mother Nature has the final say.

Jan Erickson

Forced togetherness led to marriage proposal

I had been dating my wife, Renae, for several months. She lived in Liberty Lake and would come into town to go to church with us.

There was a ladies’ tea on Sunday afternoon, May 18. Her mother had come into town to go to the tea, but when news of the eruption came and the sky to the west started to darken, her mom left the tea early to get back home. Renae said she’d be back home that evening.

By late afternoon, it became apparent she wasn’t going to make it out to Liberty Lake. I was shortly out of college and still living with my parents, so Renae stayed in town overnight in my sister’s room and we figured she would leave in the morning. Well, that didn’t happen. She wasn’t able to leave for three days.

Meanwhile, I was in my first year as the science teacher at Northwest Christian High School. While the ladies were at the tea and I heard the ash was coming, I got some tape and laid it on some flat surfaces outside, sticky side up, in hopes of catching a little bit of ash to take to school so we could look at it under the microscope. By the time the ladies got home, the tape was hidden by the ash. So I put out some jar lids with water to help catch it. By later in the day, the jar lids were buried and I just went out with a jar and started scooping ash into it. By the time school reopened, none of the kids wanted to see any more ash for the rest of their lives, so we just kept a jar of it around for awhile.

The first day, the sky was darker than the darkest night. There was a street light not much more than 75 feet from the front window and you could only seem a dim lightish area in the middle of the day. By the second day it had lightened up a bit, but looked like the densest fog you had ever seen. Visibility stopped at the end of the yard.

While we were waiting to see what was going to happen with the ash and the eruption, we listened to the radio. A friend was one of the news guys for KSPO, as I recall, a 24-hour news station.

They were giving updates on what should be done, and the reports from the news feeds and police and state patrol were contradictory. First someone would announce that the ash was acidic, so go out and get it off your cars. Then an hour later we were told that it wasn’t acidic, but don’t brush it off your car or it would scratch it up.

After the worst was over, we were told to please wash everything down the storm drains with hoses. Then the plea came to not wash anything down the storm drains because they were now clogged up with the ash as it had practically turned to cement in the drains. Also at KSPO, there were just three people in the station because it was a Sunday afternoon. Those three were stuck there for two or three days because no one could get in or out, but they stayed on the air, gallantly trying to keep the station running 24-hour news. They all got rather punchy from lack of sleep and the only things to eat were in the vending machine.

Anyway, during those 3 days, with Renae in the same clothes every day, or borrowed clothes from my sister, I looked over at her and said to myself, “You know… I think I could really get used to this.” Well, I asked her to marry me on Labor Day weekend and we were married December 20, 1980. This year we’ll celebrate 30 years of marriage and I’ve loved every single day of it… and it’s all because of Mount St. Helens.

Scotte Meredith

Air-filter sale garnered national prize

As manager of General Tire at Riverside and Division I sponsored a small company picnic at one of our workers’ homes west of Spokane, close to Reardan. We were outside playing volleyball in the sun when to the west appeared a dark thunderstorm-looking front. We kept playing until the cloud was above us and dust particles from the cloud started landing on our sweaty skin. Surprisingly, our skin started tingling and itching where exposed to the falling ash.

Someone ran inside and turned on the TV and there it was, the eruption. We all decided to head home as the bright sunshine had given way quickly to a dusty darkness. I drove my Camaro, headlights on ,as fast as I could down the Seven Mile Road, with dust swirling around the cars taillights directly in front of me.

The next morning we awoke to our Shadle neighborhood covered in a gray layer of slippery ash over an inch deep. Even the newly bright-green locusts across the street were a grimy gray as there was not a wisp of wind to wipe them clean. I went outside and scooped enough ash with a dust pan to fill two quart jars, and I still have some of that slippery, gray, talcum-like ash.

Sheriff Erickson was amazingly cool on the radio and when he gave the approval for some to travel, I went down to the General Tire Store. The radio said business owners should wash the ash down the drains so I got a 3-inch fire hose from the fire department and two of us held on to it as best we could and washed down the parking lot.

Trouble was, the ash businesses were washing down the drains was so thick it started plugging them up. So we got the word on the radio to stop immediately.

Now we think, why not shovel it up, as I now had a full crew of hard-working guys to help. The problem with this idea was the ash would not scoop — it was just to slippery. It flowed in front of the shovels like so much thick gray water. Large floor squeegies worked well, except where did the ash go but down the drains? So we stopped that as well.

The new question became how can a tire store survive with very few people driving in the area. Then I remembered a recently received extra shipment of 2,000 air filters that I ordered for a sales contest from AC Delco. Up went the air filter sale sign on Division and in a matter of days they were all sold since car and truck air filters were plugging up and ruining engines faster than you could say “pay me now or pay me later.” Anyway I won the national contest, which was good for a red sleeping bag.

A week later my wife had our first baby and I can remember driving mother and daughter home from Deaconess with clouds of ash still billowing from the cars in front of me as I drove down Lincoln through downtown Spokane. It was a time to remember.

Dennis Horlacher, Spokane

Joke from West-Sider fell flat

Though I was born and raised in Spokane, I was living on a hill in Bellevue that Sunday.  From our home, my family and I watched the eruption plume heading a bit north, but mostly eastward.  

After watching TV news into the night, I called my sister in Spokane the next morning, laughingly/sarcastically saying, “Well, have you got your shovels out?”  She replied, “That is not funny!”

Little did I know then what incredible effect the resulting ash-fall had on Central and Eastern Washington.

My sister’s husband owned his own Spokane business at the time, and (despite the warnings to do otherwise) drove there early Monday.  He called home, later that morning, complaining, “None of my clients are answering their phones.”

Janet Orr, Spokane

Girl Scouts instructed to cover and run

I was 9 years old and returning home from Girl Scout camp when Mount St. Helens erupted.

We were on the road back to Spokane when the sky became dark, the air smelled like sulfur and the ash began to fall. 

While this was going on, one of the troop leaders who was driving turned on the radio when the announcer interrupted the song to make the urgent announcement about how ”Mount St. Helens blew its stack.”

Before the car approached our houses, we were advised to cover our nose, mouth and run as fast as we could to prevent breathing in the falling ash.

My turn came and I remember taking a couple of big deep breaths, covering half of my face, running and my mom quickly opened the door when I ran inside.

As a result of the eruption, we kids got 10 days off from school and our relatives in Minnesota were amazed at the ash we collected when we visited them a few months later.

Kristie Thill

Family warned of ‘hot ash’ falling from the sky

My family, husband, Jim, daughter, Vanessa (age 3 1/2), and son, Brent (age 15 months), lived on Silver Lake outside of Medical Lake when Mount St. Helens erupted.

We were sitting out on the deck, watching the boats and water skiers on the lake on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. 

At the south end of the lake, it looked like a dark cloud filling the sky. We thought it was just a thunderstorm coming and didn’t have the TV or radio on. 

Our phone rang and it was a friend of ours who said that Mount St. Helens had erupted and that black cloud at the end of the lake was the ash coming our way. They said to get our dog in the house and car in the garage because “hot” ash would be falling outside. Of course, it wasn’t hot ash, but it became darker and that gray stuff starting falling out of the sky. 

When we got up in the morning, my husband said he had to go work (he was an accountant at Lakeland Village then) because most people wouldn’t be able to make it to work, especially the ones living in Spokane. I begged him not to go but he was such a conscientious employee, he said he had to and would be very careful. After he got there, he called and said he couldn’t even see the road with all the ash flying as cars went by.

My daughter wanted to go outside so I dressed her up like winter, totally covered with goggles over her eyes. She looked like an alien. We still didn’t know how ash would affect us (breathing it, etc.) so I was not going to let her inhale it or get it on any part of her body.

I saved a small baby food jar of ash for each of my children. I still have them.

It was an unbelievable and unforgettable experience.

Marilyn Kile

News story written gets lots of attention

“What have you gotten us into?”

My wife’s shout as I stomped off the dust was half in jest. Our move to Spokane at Christmastime 1979 had been a deliberate selection from three other city options. Hoosiers at heart,  we had chosen Spokane as the town where we would raise our girls following a career hiatus in the Los Angeles area.

Our gorgeous hiking spring morning at Riverside State Park had turned to an ash mash of total darkness by 3 p.m. Beyond imagination.  

We hadn’t heard. Not until daughter Vicki’s date for a movie called to cancel did we learn anything about this momentous event.

“Okay,” she simply uttered, and hung up. ”He said we couldn’t go because of the ash storm. Mom … what’s an ash storm?”

During the following days we found out. A bit fearful by the great unknown, and by orders from the Sheriff’s office not to venture out, we stared at a world of talc that covered everything. With nothing else to do, I began to write.

For all those friends and colleagues in California who would be wondering, I

wrote a summary of our experience and sent it to The Foothills Ledger, a flourishing newspaper with a distribution of several hundred thousand around the edges of megalopolis. To my amazement, they used it, printing the story word-for-word above the masthead on the front page. I had always assumed that space was reserved for catastrophes like war and plague. I guess the editor thought this was close enough. Washington State had become big news to everyone down south.

From that article, I received two inquiries from other families who wanted to leave the L.A. area. One of them chose Spokane and moved here in the summer. Evidently Mount St. Helens’ big blow had been no deterrent. 

I’m glad we lived here for the experience.  In the years since, I’ve told friends that I considered anyone who went through the ash-storm qualified as a native. Of course, that included the Grizzle family.

Charles Grizzle, Spokane

            

Daughter didn’t understand restriction

My daughter was 2 1/2 when the eruption happened and she kept asking why she couldn’t go outside to play since it wasn’t raining — that was the criteria for having to stay in the house. 

Just because the yard was full of volcanic ash, just didn’t make sense in her little mind.

Janice Holcomb

Racing pigeon survived ash journey

I of course had been watching the news concerning Mount St. Helens erupting, although I certainly didn’t think it would affect us. Then the concern about what the mountain would do went on the back burner when my husband Lyle unexpectedly ended up in the hospital.

The morning it blew, I was at the hospital visiting him when a nurse came in his room and told me I’d better follow her. We went into a vacant room on the west side of the building and looked out the window — what we saw was eerily mesmerizing and frightening. It was a huge cloud in the distance and it was coming toward us.

It was pretty obvious that I needed to get home so I grabbed my 6-year-old son, Peter, kissed my recovering husband goodbye and took off for home; good thing, too, because minutes after we got home the ash reached us and it began to look as if it was snowing.

One of the things my husband had been talking about that morning was his racing pigeons that had been released in Oregon and would be on their way back to their home loft in our backyard. Some had already gotten here and were safe, but some were still out there so of course we were concerned.

My son and I couldn’t leave the house so I spent the day wandering around indoors and looking out the window. That afternoon I just happened to be looking out our kitchen window when I saw something land on our fence and then drop to the ground.

I thought to myself that it couldn’t be one of our pigeons — nothing could have made it through the ash. But when I went out to see, it indeed was one of the females.

She was absolutely exhausted. I picked her up to see how she was and I couldn’t believe what I saw, her eyes where mostly sealed with ash dust as was one of her nostrils. She had flown for hours in those hellish conditions and somehow made it. I took her into the loft, cleaned her up as best I could and put her at the water. She did drink but was too weak and tired to eat so I just left her to rest. Happily, she recovered and eventually went on to race again.

Holly Bickford, Spokane Valley

    

Cat didn’t appreciate helping hand

I was 9 years old, living on Orchard Prairie in north Spokane. My dad and I were headed downtown to pick my mom up from work in the early afternoon. A dark, ominous cloud approached from the west and the news began rattling off precautions. 

I had a cat that had given birth to a litter of kittens under a shrub in our front yard. Concerned, I carried the kitties to our barn. No sooner had I tucked them in than the momma cat carried each one back to the shrub by the scruff of the neck. 

Probably around 3 p.m. we had to leave to pick up mom. By the time we got downtown, it was so dark headlights were needed and light flakes of ash had begun to fall. It looked like snow, but the temperature was in the 60s. And eerie quiet engulfed the city as the ash began to accumulate, swirling under the passing cars and obscuring visibility. 

By the time we got home, it was very dark and I was allowed to bring my kittens indoors. This is where we all stayed for the next several days as school and all other business in town was cancelled. 

I recall our next venture out to be to the fire station to pick up our face masks. The novelty of these wore off quickly as they were very itchy and difficult to breathe in. 

Lori Buratto, Spokane Valley

Government map of ash-fall wrong

On a lovely spring day, Mary Jo and I watched the dark cloud headed our way.

“Looks like a big storm is coming.”

“It might have something to do with Mount St. Helens erupting.”

“Really?”

Our geolgist neighbor Mike joined our watch. He rushed back in his house and pulled out an official U.S. pamphlet. There was a map showing where Mount St. Helens ash would land. We laughed at the government study that showed none for the Spokane area. I guess someone forgot to note that the winds blow easterly across the state.

We retreated to our homes. As the dark cloud blotted out the sun, an eerie silence arrived. Two birds shot across the sky, seconds before the ash began to fall like snow, making a grey blanket covering all of the spring colors. It was as if someone had made the world a black and white TV.

Carol Numata

People clamored for newspapers on Monday

It was Sunday morning, a little after 8 a.m., and we were on our way to Liberty Lake for a little spring fishing. We got in the car and noticed black, ominous clouds coming in from the west. What was supposed to be a warm, beautiful, sunny, day suddenly resembled tornado weather.

We turned on the car radio and heard a grave-voiced announcer talk about a volcano exploding on the west side of Washington; there were reports that an ash cloud was drifting across the state, bringing everything to a standstill. The announcer stated a crop duster had crashed from engine failure, due to the ash clogging the plane’s air intake, and authorities were advising people to go home and button up their houses to keep the ash out.

We turned around and went home, parking the cars in the garage, and sealing the cracks around the windows and doors with rags and towels. By then the light from the sun had faded, and the streetlights had come on. Large flakes of gray ash, illuminated by street lights, resembled snow falling on an unseasonably warm night. Before it was done, there were several inches of powdery ash covering everything. Incredibly light, it puffed up with each step and created “rooster tails” behind you when you drove through it.

The next morning, I got up a 5 a.m. to deliver my newspaper routes. The Spokesman-Review had left face masks on top of the newspapers for their carriers to use as they delivered the newspapers. I slowly drove down deserted streets, as if I was the only person in a great moonscape. I could see excited people run to their front windows, watching me deliver papers to their neighbors, and some ran out to the street in bathrobes and boots trying to buy a paper. Regretfully, I had to turn them away because I only had enough for my regular customers. I was eventually able to deliver all my papers by 9 a.m., although I had to pull over several times to knock the ash out of my car’s air filter, so the car would stay running. The Spokesman Review continued to put out papers, and the carriers continued to deliver them, throughout the days and weeks to follow.

I never did get all the ash out of the air vents of my old ’69 Dodge Dart.

Sharon O’Brien, Spokane

Ash couldn’t stop Don Kardong

I was living and working in north Spokane. In addition to remembering the blackest sky I had ever seen, I vividly remember Don Kardong running/jogging in the ash into the small grocery store where I worked.

At the time we didn’t know the health hazards of the ash, and when asked about potential health hazards to his lungs, Don just retorted something along the lines of, “Humpff…what’s the big deal?”

I’m assuming he was right all these years later.

Jan Oman, Spokane

Cooperation sped street-cleaning chore

What we thought were storm clouds in the west were actually clouds of ash. Soon a layer of fine ash began to settle on everything outdoors. As it grew deeper and deeper, it seemed to silence eveything. Birds were quiet, and moving vehicles were scarce. Local stores sold every dust mask in stock.

 When the ash finally stopped falling, Marvin took a push broom and went to the east end of our block. Knocking on the doors of the first two houses, he recruited help in hosing down the sidewalks and streets, then sweeping the ash toward the west.

Dr. Orland Scott lived in one of the two first homes, and he apologized for not being able to help, but he had to go to the hospital. He did take time to snap a few pictures before he left. 

Moving down the block, helpers, hoses, and brooms were added at each house, and it wasn’t long before the crew reached the west end of the block and left theash in a pile in the gutter, to be picked up later by city trucks. We had the first clean block in Kellogg. 

Marvin has a five-gallon bucket of ash as a souvenir.

Marvin and Janet Lake, Smelterville

Four ‘ash days’ off of work

 

Sunday afternoon, 2ish. Woke up, looked outside, saw afternoon turning to night.

Confused. Worked the grave the night before on the legal offender admission unit at Eastern State Hospital. Sometimes the diurnal/nocturnal cycles got confused upon waking. But this was different.

Watched it darken outside through the bedroom window, got up, went out on the street with the neighbors. Dude. Then the ash started falling like snowflakes from hell. Soft, quiet, dry, falling and falling.

Next day garden hosing a dirty world. Off the roof, off the cars, down the street. Took forever. Stubborn Pacific Rim volcanic ash.

Don’t drive in it the news droids said. Don’t breath it without masks or the microscopic silicates will switchblade your lungs and hamburger your throat.

Got four “ash days” off from my state job. If you didn’t live in Medical Lake (I was in Spokane Valley which we called “the Valley” back then) you didn’t go in to work. Coulda used the overtime.

Went to classes at Eastern Washington University, my hypochondriacal physiological psych prof spewed the Deadly Ash Microsilicate Lung Invasion Apocalyptic Grand Unified Theory upon us. Mask up, man!

My ex-girlfriend called bugging me for big bucks to get her ’65 VW Bug engine rebuilt. The ash trashed. I told her no, not my prob. Ask new guy to step up. She yelled at me but unlike her geological proxy, Mount St. Helens, she didn’t exactly settle down with the occasional steam venting.

Life in the ash lane. Spokane as crematorium. Unforgettable.

Robert Salsbury

Ash destroyed VW Bug

On that bright, Sunday morning, I was working at Baskin and Robbins on South Grand.  

I heard the radio account of the eruption and shared the information with the customers who came in for a treat.  Nobody seemed the least worried until the sky turned black. 

I excitedly set out empty tubs to catch the falling ash and closed the store early when the warning alarms sounded. I never made it back to collect the tubs. 

My air-cooled VW Bug died a few weeks later from driving home in the ash-covered streets.

Christopher Micek, Spokane

 

Rumors of permanent evacuation swirled

We were working in the yard when about 3 p.m. the sky turned blacker than coal. Hearing the news of the St. Helens blast we immediately turned on our sprinkler system. Ash started raining from the sky. 

The next news said to wash the gray ash down the drain. A day or so later reports said, stop, it will clog all of the drains. Continued conflicting reports hit the airwaves as officials had no experience dealing with a volcanic eruption.

Living in fear of reported engine failures, dangerous breathing exposure, and a potential second explosion, jailed us at home for almost two weeks. Store shelves were empty of bread, milk etc. as commerce had put on the same brakes as the residents of the Spokane area.

Rumors of total devastation permeated the news and talk on the streets. Will the ash and destruction ever leave, or will we have to evacuate permanently? To think of a total loss of home and property grated on the citizens’ nerves.

Recovery came gradually with the exception of gray ash laying on the ground for over 10 years. My reminder is housed in two large antique jars of gray Mount St. Helens ash sitting on a cabinet in my office.

 Certain events are expected in one’s life on this earth. The blast on May 18, 1980 was a dramatic extra.

Jock and Eileen Swanstrom,  Spokane Valley

Sold ash like Kool-Aid

We lived in Nampa, Idaho, and I was a small child. But me and my brother and our grandma used jars to collect the ash and we sold it like you did at a Kool-Aid stand. We must have sold gallons of baby food jars full of it.

Recently my grandmother was moved to assisted living, and as we were preparing for her estate sale, I ran across a gallon ice cream bucket full of Mount St. Helen’s ash.

My brother and I had a great talk about it, remembering scooping it up and jarring it to be sold. We kept enough for each of our kids to have a piece of history.

I was telling my grandma we found it, she said she actually had people come back over the years and ask if she had any more. She also ran a flea market and that was a hot item on her shelf.

Brenda Evans, Post Falls

Clay figures waiting to be painted

 

When we heard that Mount St. Helens had erupted Sunday morning, we immediately called my brother and his family who lived on the Skamania River near Washougal. Our concern was for them, because they were so close to the mountain. They just reported that they heard the explosion, but there were no other problems in their area.

Sunday progressed as usual. However, as we sat in our chapel around 3 p.m., we noticed through the curtains that it seemed to be getting dark outside. By the time church was out at 4, we had to use our headlights to drive home. The ash was really thick in the air and it smelled like sulfur outside. Of course we were glued to the radio and TV to find out what we should be doing.

The next morning when we got up, the world looked like gray, clay pottery figures waiting for color to be added. Our forest and pond looked surreal. Two deer came down to the water to get a drink — they, too, looked like clay colored animals.

At the time, I taught at Ferris High School and was told the Spokane County sheriff had declared a state of emergency, so we did not have school for the week. No one was to drive their cars. In our location near Sacheen Lake, we had one-eighth of an inch and were told Spokane had one half an inch of ash.

On Tuesday, my husband ventured out 10 miles to the local quick-stop, which was packed with people. Of course the first things to go were beer and cigarettes. He got us the very essentials — root beer and ice cream. He came home with enough to last us a good week.

On Thursday the 22nd it rained a little, which helped clear the air. We were all told to stay at home unless absolutely necessary — no one knew for sure what damage the ash was going to do to our cars, let alone our lungs.

On Saturday, we went to town to get dust masks from the local fire station. Everywhere we went, we saw people wearing the masks — it was a curious sight. Stores sold the masks for 99 cents each and many quickly ran out.

Even though we had food and water supplies, it was still a fearful time, because we did not know what damage the ash was causing.

Monday the 26th we still did not go back to school. On the next day, school started again. We were told we could not have any PE classes outdoors, so scrambled to get all classes playing volleyball together all week.

Everyone had their ash stories to tell and we survived and got back to normal schedules. However, for years to come, we all were still cleaning ash out of our rain gutters and every other nook and cranny that it could sift into. It was quite an experience considering we lived so far away from the mountain.

Janet Kemp

TV warned of ash cloud approaching

We lived on acreage near Cheney at the time. Although the explosion took place at about 8:30 a.m., we didn’t hear about it until afternoon. 

We had dinner at Mr. Steak after church, noticed how dark the sky was getting and assumed a thunderstorm was coming. We stopped at Grandpa and Grandma’s house on our way home, and the television program they were watching was interrupted with an announcement that the ash cloud was coming our way. 

We hurried home and put the cars in the garage. When we got up the next morning and looked outside, it seemed like we were living on a different planet.  We had about an inch of gray ash covering everything. We wore masks over our noses and mouths when we went outdoors, schools and many workplaces closed, and the big clean-up job began.

Colleen Prophet

Ash prompted large babies?

We were outside that Saturday morning doing yard work at our home we still live in today. Our two young daughters were riding tricycles and drawing on the sidewalk with colored chalk. I was 8 months pregnant with our son.

I noticed the sky was getting very black and thought “thunderstorm” since that was my experience growing up in Kentucky. A sudden black sky usually meant severe thunderstorm or tornado. Soon the air looked thicker and denser and particles were in it as if a huge fire were nearby.

We finally went inside to listen to news and heard about the volcano’s eruption. We kept the girls inside the rest of the day and bought masks by late that afternoon. We were indoors a lot the next month with so much ash in the air.

I painted the whole upstairs and had our 10 lb. son, Nick, on June 24, 1980, five weeks after Mount St. Helens erupted. The joke around Sacred Heart Hospital was that ash got into the scales since there were several large babies born around then.

When we re-roofed our home several years later, there was still so much ash under the cedar shakes that were torn off and down in the attic. Each of our adult children has a baby food jar filled with Mount St. Helens ash.

Betty Pontarolo

Helping with recovery in blast zone a memorable experience

For me it all began that afternoon about 3 p.m. I was in my yard when I noticed something landing on my head, a gray, gritty material that kept falling steadily and more intensely within minutes.

All of us who witnessed this event remember how strange it was. The ash kept falling throughout the day and night. By the next day, everywhere you looked, the ground and the trees, everything was covered in gray ash.

On Monday I drove out to Cheney, where I was a teacher, and heard that the students wouldn’t be coming because of the ash dust and the ventilation system filters were plugged. Within days we were told that the remainder of the school year was canceled. The teachers and staff reported to work when possible to complete end-of-school-year duties.

At home, my neighbors and I worked for many hours cleaning our houses and brooming and washing down the street to control the dust after that.

What happened after that became an even more memorable experience. As a member of the Army Reserve Corps of Engineers, I received orders to report to the Portland District in June 1980. I soon was involved in assisting with the disaster recovery operations there.

While performing my duties I spent two weeks within the restricted Green Zone, a 14-mile radius of the volcano. I went into some homes where the debris from the pyroclastic mud flow came up over 4 feet inside the rooms. I saw an upright piano pushed up to the ceiling, tilted and frozen in place, and children’s toys on top of the dried mud.

In addition, I have ash samples from the Green Zone, Yakima and Spokane, which show the variation in the ash as it traveled from the blast area. I also have samples of the pumice stone from the crater itself that was carried downstream. I saw pumice stone samples on the Columbia that were the size of beach balls, which had been carried downstream from the crater all the way to the Port of Portland.

The immensity of the Mount St. Helens eruption was a truly memorable event to all who witnessed it.

Ron Cauvel, Spokane

Metal-detecting trip turned into wild ride

That a.m. my husband, our son and wife and granddaughter were metal-detecting in Rathdrum Park. Before we left home, our granddaughter said we should take a jar for ash, which we did.

At 3 p.m. we could see these black clouds and figured we should start home. By the time we reached Moab Junction we couldn’t see a thing. I don’t know to this day how my husband managed to get us back without hitting something or being hit by someone.

We didn’t get any ash in our jar, but there was plenty around after getting back – for weeks and months, actually.

For years, when traveling to Seattle from Spokane, there was ash along the roadways. It sure made gorgeous vases, jewelry, bowls, etc.

Later, we survived a hurricane in Hawaii. Enough!

Celeste Frost, Spokane

The old man and the ash

My neighbor told me about Mt. St. Helens going off. We stood together looking west, watching the sky darken as the ash cloud approached. Out of curiosity I decided to walk downtown which wasn’t far. As I set off I grabbed a dust mask and navy surplus poncho. The sky slowly went black and falling ash began to lightly swirl about. Downtown, the ash had accumulated and a car driving by would leave a rooster tail of ash behind.

Most of downtown seemed deserted as people stayed indoors. Yet on the corner of Main and Howard by the Bon Marche sat an elderly man dressed in a suit and wide-brimmed hat. His arms were outstretched before him with his clasped hands resting on a cane. A neat pile of ash circled the brim of his hat. It looked as if some prankster had dumped a bag of Portland cement over the old man. Staring straight ahead, he calmly surveyed the apocalyptic-looking landscape. By this time I was wearing my mask and had the hood of the poncho up. Leaning over to speak with the old man, I asked if he was OK. He said, “Sure! This is nothing. I was in the war!”

I suppose he meant World War ll, but I didn’t ask. I just moved on, marveling at him and what I was seeing.

Dave Sweeny

Raccoon look-alikes

We lived on West Jackson Avenue in Spokane when the mountain blew. We had two black cats, mother and son, and they were outside when it happened. When they came in that evening, they were gray cats with black circles around their eyes and mouth. They looked like raccoons. The strange thing was they didn’t recognize each other and started hissing and spitting. Have you ever tried washing ash off a cat?

Mollie Shane



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