Editor’s note: Readers submitted the following stories about traveling when Mount St. Helens erupted.
Ritzville church hosted 150 stranded travelers
The sheriff telephoned to ask my husband, then the pastor of Emanuel Lutheran Church (in Ritzville) for the use of the church as a shelter for stranded travelers ushered off Interstate 90 and Highway 395 as travel became impossible.
Ritzville’s population of less than 2,000 absorbed an additional 2,500 people that night. Our church hosted 150 travelers; others were lodged in various churches, schools and some private homes. Much earlier the motels had reached full capacity.
Everyone coming into our house needed the use of the vacuum cleaner, the shower and to be given clean clothes. (I did feel sorry for those coming to the church who couldn’t be helped in a similar manner). Of the 14 guests we received, eight were little girls from the St. John choir in nearby Sprague, with their director. For their sake we made a game of it (of sorts) and let them select clothes from our (away at college) daughter’s room. Their own clothes were washed and dried during the night, ready for a new day – but would it come?
On Monday morning the general reaction was “I’ve never been so thankful to see the morning light!” There were many prayers of thanksgiving after that frightful night. The ash had stopped about 10 p.m. The 15-hour night gave way to brilliant sunshine.
Marilyn Ulleland, Spokane Valley
News blackout meant travelers taken by surprise
On May 19, 1980, my friend Fred and I were traveling north through Idaho on our return from a motorcycle-riding trip to the Alvord Desert in northeast Oregon. We had not had access to news for about a week.
As we came over the top of White Bird grade just south of Grangeville, we noticed a significant decrease in visibility. It had been blue sky and sun all the way up the Salmon River, and this was a drastic change in atmospheric conditions. Both of us, being foresters, concluded that there must have been a big forest fire in Western Washington.
We pulled in to a restaurant in Grangeville for lunch, and on the way in the door I noticed that there were no newspapers in the racks outside the cafe. I thought that was kind of odd that all three of the different papers were sold out that early in the day.
After ordering our lunch, I asked the server, “what is in the air outside, smoke from a big fire?” She just looked at us like we were from another planet. She said “Mount St. Helens blew up yesterday.” Fred and I looked at each other dumbfounded. The reason there were no papers outside was because none had been delivered that day.
Later we learned that all the highways heading out of Grangeville to the north and east were closed due to lack of visibility and clouds of dust from moving vehicles. We stayed the night in our camper in Grangeville. The next day we checked with the sheriff’s department and learned that the roads were open as long as we drove slow to prevent ash boiling up.
At this point we split up because I was heading home to Helena, Mont., and Fred was going home to Bonners Ferry. I made it home late that day. I learned later that Fred was involved in a minor rear-end accident due to visibility problems north of Coeur d’Alene.
Volcano: divine retribution for sneaking away?
It’s 1980, I am a senior in high school anxiously nearing graduation day. I am “in love” with my high school sweetheart and we are planning to marry the fall after graduation.
At the time we seemed so grown up and looked for every opportunity to spend time together.
My boyfriend’s uncle and aunt, Brad and Linda, invited us to go to his high school reunion being held in Echo, Ore. for the weekend. Well knowing that my parents would never approve of me spending the weekend with my boyfriend, I made the choice to ask my Mom if I could go out of town with Linda to visit some of her friends.
Yes, in the Biblical sense it was a lie but somehow in my 17-year-old brain, it seemed there was some truth in the request. Reluctantly she agreed. Actually I am pretty sure I badgered her into submission and since she had four other children to deal with she probably wouldn’t miss one.
Brad, Linda, their 2-month-old son Justin, Colan and I loaded into the car on Friday and headed to Echo. The weekend was filled with a lot of fun and celebration. Sunday, we loaded back into the car and headed back to Spokane.
I remember it was a sunny day. We had the music turned up and were enjoying the ride back. We noticed that the sky looked different, not quite like a storm — the sky was brilliant blue and then it was very dark and stormy looking. We commented on it but didn’t think too much of it.
We approached Connell, Wash., and stopped for gas and something to drink. As we walked back to the car we noticed little flecks falling from the sky, not snow and not rain, but brushed it off.
The sky became darker and darker and the “stuff” falling from the sky was getting heavy. Brad was driving, it was increasingly difficult to see. We couldn’t roll down the windows or turn on the air conditioner for some fresh air due to the “stuff” falling from the sky. Every time the windshield wipers swiped back and forth it looked as if the window was getting scratched. Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace. Every time a vehicle passed going the other direction it would swirl all of the falling “stuff” making it impossible to see.
Several hours later we finally reached Ritzville and stopped. We learned that Mount St. Helens has erupted and that it was ash falling from the sky. Hundreds of travelers had stopped in Ritzville. The Washington State Patrol closed the roads, the car wouldn’t start again anyway. We were directed to go to a nearby church, along with many other travelers. The hotels were all full, so the church graciously set up for overnight guests.
At this point I knew that my parents were worried about my whereabouts. I should have been home hours ago. Remember, this was a time where cell phones were not the norm.
The church let me make a collect long-distance call home. As soon as I heard my mom’s voice I started crying, spilling my guts about where I was and where I really was over the weekend. At that point I was pretty certain that Mount St Helens erupted because I lied to my parents — call it Catholic guilt. Of course my parents were relieved that at least I was somewhere safe, but there was no way to come get us.
We woke up Monday morning. The ash was deep, halfway-up-your-calf deep. We walked around town and wondered what was going to happen now. One of the wonderful parishioners at the church let us stay at their house the next night, I think having a 2-month-old with us helped.
The next night a room opened up. The problem was we had a small amount of money on us, so the hotel agreed to let us stay there if we helped clean it. I cannot remember now if we stayed one or two nights.
While we were in Ritzville, our parents were trying to figure out how to get us out of there, since the WSP was not letting people into Ritzville due to the influx of people there. If you could get out, you were free to go but that was not the case for us. Fortunately, my boyfriend’s uncle knew of some back road to get there and he arrived, like a “knight in a pickup” to take us back to Spokane.
Marci Vanderbosch, Mead
Trip took him through center of the ash cloud, into the light
I was attending a picnic for our Reserve unit and had just opened a can of cola when a faint boom was heard.
“Bet the mountain blew up,” was one comment. “Nah, that was a sonic boom,” said another.
Just in case, those members who lived out of the Spokane area were excused and we headed home. Myself, I was living in Walla Walla at the time and getting home would be an experience not soon forgotten.
I was driving a Jeep CJ7, taking my time driving south on Highway 195 when I saw in the distance a heavy storm rolling across the Palouse west of Colfax. The forward edge reached me when I was still a few miles north of Colfax. I saw what I thought was hail slicing toward me through the windshield. But then I realized the hail wasn’t making any noise nor was it bouncing off the windshield and hood of the Jeep.
“Yep, the mountain is coming visiting,” was my thought, but didn’t take in to account what would follow shortly. I turned west toward Dusty from Colfax. A Washington State Patrol cruiser passed me on the way to close the highway west out of Colfax, so I found out later.
I was just west of the fairgrounds when the lights went out. I mean it was as dark as a deep mine; not a hint of light from the above anywhere. I passed a farmhouse with the yard light on, talk about eerie.
Everything was crystal clear except for the bits of ash falling. Naturally I slowed down even though I could see up the road double the safe distance. It was safe until an 18-wheeler came down the road toward me. As the truck passed it threw up a rooster tail of ash into the air. I had to pull off to the side of the road and wait until the ash settled before continuing.
I turned south toward Central Ferry and only encountered a couple of cars between Dusty and the Central Ferry Bridge. I did encounter a horse standing in the middle of the road about three miles north of the river. I pulled up to the horse and he slowly walked off the road toward a house. As I approached the Central Ferry Bridge I could see a line of black and blue; blue on the bottom and black on top. The edge cloud/ash line was as sharp as a carpenter’s snap line. The edge of the dust cloud bordered south of the bridge and I was in clear sunlight by the time I reached the top of the grade. It was just like stepping out of a deep shadow into bright sunlight.
It was clear the rest of the way to Walla Walla. I removed a can’s worth of ash from the front bumper of the Jeep; I still have it in the garage. I was lucky I drove a Jeep with a dust filter, I experienced no damage to the Jeep, but there were many cars and trucks damaged due to the ash. A boon to the auto and truck mechanics east of Mount St. Helens.
In 3,000 years, archeologists will be using the layer of ash deposited as a time marker to date artifacts of us either above or below the layer.
Pilot reportedly made first landing at Spokane airport
I was in the Philippines enjoying a crew rest day by playing golf at the Clark Air Force base golf course. I was a flight engineer in the Air Force Reserves at McChord Air Force Base, flying in a C141. I had commuted to McChord from Spokane Felts Field in our family’s single-engine airplane. When I returned to the billeting facility at Clark, a message board stated: “MSgt Valkenaar — call home.”
With obvious concern I immediately made contact by phone with my wife at our home in the Spokane Valley. It was then that I learned of the eruption and the falling ash problem. The biggest concern at that moment was my wife trying to attach “booties” and a mask on our lab dog so he could go outside and do his “duties” in the backyard. I learned later that she had let him out without protection but immediately washed off his feet when he had finished and returned inside.
When I returned to McChord and flew my single-engine Cessna back to Spokane, I was told on the radio by the Federal Aviation Administration and Air Traffic Control that all airports in the Spokane area were closed because of the ash.
Knowing the area and that the information given was for “controlled public use airports (those with FAA towers),” coupled with the reported weather being sunny with unlimited visibility, I had decided that I could land at any number of low-use airports like Deer Park, Tekoa etc.
As I approached Spokane International I heard a Northwest Airlines jet conversing with the approach controller regarding landing, and the controller advising that such a move was not advisable and if done would be at “your own risk.” The Northwest pilot responded that he would continue and not land.
When I asked for permission to land, I was told the same, to which I responded by accepting the risk, noting that there was enough runway cleared of ash for my use. The tower cleared the ash-cleaning crew from the runway and I landed, turned onto a taxiway and shut down my engine for a tow to parking. I was told that my landing was the first one since the eruption event had closed the airport.
Retired Master Sgt. Lew Valkenaar
Stranded in a Moses Lake cafe
We live in Spokane Valley, but when the eruption of Mount St. Helens took place we were living in Everett. We had been gone three weeks on a trip in our motor home and had stopped the night before to spend the night with our daughter in Spokane.
The next morning we left to go home to Everett and eventually while traveling down the highway, we noticed something that seemed to be kicking up from the highway and that it kept getting darker. By that time, my husband said, “I bet that Mount St. Helens blew.”
The radio wasn’t working, so we couldn’t find out anything. It was around noon as we approached Moses Lake and very dark. It was then when traffic was stopped and we were told not to go any further. The first heavy ash fell to the pavement as we were taking the off-ramp into Moses Lake.
We spent two nights at the truck stop in Moses Lake and were very lucky to have a place to sleep. We shared some bedding with another couple who had come from the Seattle area in their station wagon to pick up their daughter from college. As people kept arriving, we settled inside the café and some of us played cards. Thirty-six hours later the news still didn’t know over 1,500 out-of-towners were stranded in Moses Lake. So much for emergency information.
One couple had driven from another small town just to have dinner that day. Another couple had walked quite a few miles and when they came in, they were so covered with ash, about all you saw was their eyeballs. People would walk in and brush the ash off of their clothes. Various ones would try to keep the ash cleaned up. At one point one of the workers in the café said they might have to close because of inspection. We all thought, “who in the world is going to come along to inspect?”
While there, we couldn’t seem to find out any information about how long we would be stranded or anything else.
Had the authorities known what to do, all that was needed was to tell people to go 20 miles north or south of Interstate 90 where the roads were okay. Finally the third day we were told that they were going to use water trucks to escort us out of town by going through Ephrata and that if we had any trouble with our vehicles just to pull over. You were on your own.
At the truck stop the ash was deep and real fine, like bath powder, so we drove real slow as we left Moses Lake. We felt that they did a very good job by using the water trucks to get us out and on our way. Unfortunately, there were a lot of vehicles that were ruined because of not getting stopped earlier in the day.
This was an adventure we never thought in our lifetime that we would ever experience, but one to be added to our many other memories.
Virginia and Leon Breckenridge, Spokane Valley
Ash helped uncover car’s hidden beauty
I was living in Wenatchee at the time. I was 17 and enjoying my first car, a 1966 Oldsmobile Starfire coupe.
It was a heavily oxidized, fire-engine red (or so I was led to believe at the time of the sale).
I was visiting my friend Mike Brownell while he worked at a local gas station. It was midday. I’d ridden my bike the two or so miles from home to chat.
The sky darkened unlike that of approaching storm clouds. Something was indeed approaching from the direction of Seattle, best I could tell. The radio had earlier informed listeners of the mighty eruption in the southwestern part of the state. Apparently, this was the fallout of that eruption.
Choosing to get home as quick as I could pedal, I noticed the sky darkening very rapidly. Reaching home I was scolded for having been outside breathing the ashen air. It literally became night in the middle of the afternoon.
Our TV was the hotspot of entertainment listening to all news pertaining to this event. We were held hostage (or so I felt) under cover until the skies cleared. The press warned heavily those choosing to venture outside to wear paper masks (like those worn in hospitals) to filter out ash.
I believe it was the next midday when I ventured outside to my classic car. The news warned that the ash was of a gritty nature and it was best to use water to wash it off of surfaces. Being a know-it-all 17-year-old with his first car, I knew better.
The first thing I did was approach the trunk area and swiped the lid with the side of my hand. Lo and behold, what did I see? A beautiful, bright-red paint emerge from beneath the ash. It was true what the former owner had said. The ash gave me a new paint job. Until I was told to stop playing in the ash, I’d un-covered the majority of the ash-laden vehicle. Aside from the ash, it was gorgeous.
Flight cancellation led to memorable car trip
Dawn. Gray everywhere. Gray envelopes the fronds of the towering Ponderosa pines. Gray blankets the roadway and surrounding vegetation. Gray covers the car and me up to my ankles.
Silence. No birds, no engines, no sound. Overwhelming silence. A field mouse gingerly steps onto this odorless gritty snow-like fluff, contemplating this strange scouring powder-like material. It wasn’t winter, it wasn’t snow, and the gray never melted.
It was the morning after the 18th of May 1980 and the aftermath of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
I was somewhere along the Pullman Highway, just south of Spokane, stopped because of a clogged air filter. Volcanic ash everywhere. How did I happen to be on US Route 195 that dawn?
On the morning of May 18, I planned a return from San Francisco on a flight leaving at 11 a.m., making a stop in Portland before arriving in Spokane about 1 p.m. Waiting to board, I became aware of other passengers toting television cameras with national network logos.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Oh, Mount St. Helens erupted at 8:35 this morning. This is the first commercial flight out of San Francisco for Portland. We want pictures for the evening news.”
As the plane approached Portland it circled the volcano, allowing the television people to record the eruption. What a sight. A huge plume of rising gray ash and car-sized chunks of rock shooting upward, and then falling back to earth: the cloud of finer material blowing toward the northeast.
Lightning. An enormous, roiling, boiling thunderhead raining rock. I was excited to be that close to an erupting volcano, and awed by the sights and sounds, but the body of the aircraft formed a barrier to my brain so that this scene seemed like a movie in the distance, rather than real life.
The captain came on the intercom. “All Spokane passengers must deplane. Ash has closed the Spokane airport.” What should I do? The choice was either stay in Portland until planes could again land in Spokane, or find another way home.
Upon landing I hurried to the Northwest Airlines ticket counter to cash in the remaining portion of my ticket, and quickly proceeded to the rental car area where I discovered four guys who decided to rent a car to drive to Montana via Spokane. Because everyone else in the airport seemed to be looking for a rental car, the supply was dwindling. “Yes,” they said, “You can join us.” I learned one of the four was a doctor. I figured medical help was available if I needed it.
It was about 4 p.m. by the time we left Portland and began the drive eastward along the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge. The wind was blowing to the northeast and thus the Interstate was free of ash. At Pendleton we turned northward. I saw our spectacular rooster tail of ash as we proceeded towards Spokane.
We dropped off the first guy in Lewiston, Idaho. He worked for the Forest Service.
From there we drove to Pullman to drop off a college student from Washington State University. We arrived in Pullman about 11 p.m. and the ash was ankle deep.
As we drove towards Spokane, our air filter clogged every time a car approached, requiring the driver to stop and tap out the ash. This happened about every 20 miles or so.
I remember passing major intersections, and turning around in my seat, seeing road closed signs from where we had just come. We never went through a road-closed sign as they were facing travelers driving south.
About 4 a.m., our air filter finally free of ash, we moved northward, the only car on the road. As we approached Hatch Road in south Spokane, police had stopped traffic traveling southward on the Pullman Highway. The police gave us strange looks as we wheeled up Hatch Road.
The two remaining guys, the Spokane doctor and the driver heading to Montana, dropped me off at my house before 6 a.m. I took a shower and went to bed. It had been over 24 hours since I had slept, but I didn’t care. I was living the experience of a lifetime.
Eileen Starr, Spokane
Toilet paper did the job for car’s air filter
I was at our lake place at Twin Lakes in Idaho when it looked like a thunderstorm coming over the hill from the west.
Our neighbor came over and said Mount St. Helens had blown and that was the ash cloud. The neighbor headed back to town. We stayed and got a very light dusting of ash.
Came back to Spokane the next day. My sister was in Wenatchee when it blew and they did not get any ash there, but when she left she headed for Interstate 90 and it was closed at George, so she stopped at the Martha Inn for dinner and called us.
They had about 3 inches of ash on I-90 and huge clouds of ash when a car or truck went down the highway. The next morning she wrapped toilet paper around her air cleaner and headed for Spokane, stopping at each town to blow out the air cleaner and apply new toilet paper.
Never bothered her engine but her air conditioner spit out ash for a year or so.
Charles Hansen, Spokane