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Mount St. Helens memories: Working

Pat Kile's husband, Bert, attempted to go to work at The Spokesman-Review on Monday, May 19, 1980, but returned home from the bus stop 30 minutes later, covered in ash. (Photo Kile / Courtesy of Pat Kile)
Pat Kile's husband, Bert, attempted to go to work at The Spokesman-Review on Monday, May 19, 1980, but returned home from the bus stop 30 minutes later, covered in ash. (Photo Kile / Courtesy of Pat Kile)

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

After graveyard shift, awoke to darkness

As a Spokane Police officer and a registered nurse At Sacred Heart Hospital, my wife and I were working the graveyard shift. We had no children at the time and as was normal (for us) we came home from our Saturday night/Sunday morning shifts and were in bed by 8 a.m. or shortly thereafter. We had covered our bedroom windows with aluminum foil to keep out all light and we would take the telephone off the hook hoping to get some semblance of normal sleep.

After sleeping until around 2 p.m. or so, we got up to start our day. As I looked out of our front window it seemed to be getting darker like we were in for a storm. Over the next few minutes it became increasingly darker and darker. It became so dark that the street lights in front of our house came on. We figured that this was going to be one heck of a storm.

We had absolutely no clue (and certainly never dreamed that a volcanic eruption had taken place) as to what was happening. I telephoned my parents and asked them what in the world was going on? My mother responded, “Haven’t you heard? Mount St. Helens had erupted.” I told her “No, we haven’t heard, we’ve been in bed since 8.” She then informed us that the eruption had taken place shortly after we gone to bed and this was an ash cloud. 

Both my wife and I worked that Sunday night. Her recollection of that night at SHMC was how quiet the patients were. She said that literally no “call” lights came on from the patients on her floor. The blanket of ash outside was like a new blanket of snow that caused a muffling effect. The quietness seemed to be reflected into the hospital causing an eerie silence.

At the police department, the big question was what was going to be the effect on us and our cars? We all were given masks to wear, which to some of us seemed a little silly. There was also a fear that the ash would be sucked into the engines of our cars and would ruin them. As such, we were instructed to go to our districts and park or to go to nearby hospitals so we were in a position to respond to emergency calls. I happened to live close to where I was assigned so my partner and I went to my house. Police radio was absolutely silent. I recall that we received no calls from radio during that shift.

Scott Johnson

Golf course mowing job had to wait


I was 16 and had a job mowing the putting greens at Downriver Golf Course. Since I lived close to the course I had the dubious honor of mowing the greens on weekends. So at 4 a.m. I would climb out of bed and brave the cold mornings to start cutting grass.

This particular morning started just like any other. However, toward the end of the mowing cycle the sky turned the darkest gray I had ever seen. I thought I better hurry up before I got rained on. I put away the mower and jumped on my bike and it was black as night. Then the “snow” started falling. It wasn’t really snow but ash.

The street lights came on. Cars stopped moving to look at it. It was the most surreal experience of my life, like I had landed on another planet.

Of course, upon arriving home I was informed of the cause but it was still exciting. We were off school for a week (which was great since that was the same years as a District 81 teachers’ strike and we were forced to attend the extended school year ) and I made a lot of overtime cleaning the ash off my freshly mowed golf greens.

Robert Fairfax, Spokane 

Faulty hoses made cleaning job more difficult

My memories of Mount St. Helens aren’t so much centered on the day of the event as the days following. At the time of the explosion I was employed by Spokane County as a groundskeeper/landscaper, in charge of caring for the county campus.

I recall on Sunday evening the mayor and sheriff making public announcements to curtail any but emergency travel.  Also as most businesses, schools etc. were to be closed on Monday I didn’t go to work the next day, Monday.

Sometime around early afternoon I got phone call from the head of maintenance wondering why I didn’t go to work that day. I told my boss I understood we were to stay off the roads for the foreseeable future.  He said, “Who do you think is going to clean this place?” (the county campus).  I replied I guess that would be me and my co-workers and he said, “Right you are.” 

As it turned out at the time I was called, the only two folks trying to clean up the ash around the courthouse, jail, public health center etc. were my boss and former Spokane County Commissioner Ray Christiansen.

Anyway the next day all of us in maintenance got to work and tried to figure out where to start. Commissoner Christiansen had tackled some of the sidewalk area with a garden hose, as did my boss, but we soon saw that was a futile effort.  We decided we needed more volume, power, whatever to make any progress.  Fire hose seemed to be the answer. 

Some of us recalled there were hundreds of feet of fire hose hanging in cabinets in the Public Safety Building to help suppress indoor fires. So we walked though the building and pulled all the hose in the building and hauled it outside and began hooking to hydrants. We rolled out lengths and lengths of hose extending 150 feet and more depending on where the hydrants were. Then when we were ready we gave the high sign to turn on the water. 

We turned our backs to the hydrants to await the rush of water and begin cleanup but there was no rush. Shortly we heard laughing, guffawing and carrying on which made no sense. As we turned around we noticed all those hoses were sprouting water like lawn and garden soaker hoses with nary a drop reaching the nozzle. 

What had happened was those hoses were installed and hanging in the Public Safety Building since construction, completed around 1970. Those hoses were of a much lighter fabric than a traditional firefighting hose and all those years of hanging on metal clips had weakened the hoses to ineffectiveness. 

We later rounded up some genuine fire hose from various spots around the county and used them. We also tried to make emergency purchases of fire hose, but the businesses in Spokane that carried the product could not keep up with demand, as you can imagine.

Eventually we got it all cleaned up. 

The thing I recall also, was those of us who came in and worked were paid straight time as it was a regular work day, and all other county employees not involved in some facet of cleanup through their various agencies stayed home – but they were also paid for staying home. You can imagine that caused a real morale problem, but that’s a story for another day. 

Somewhere at my home, I have a bunch of pictures I took from the County Courthouse tower first thing Tuesday morning, when cleanup had barely begun.  Those pictures were later used by FEMA to help determine the scope of the emergency in Spokane.

Terry A. Hontz, Spokane

Wife was waylaid, concert canceled

My wife Caroline and her sister Anne Besse are both artists. That weekend, they traveled south to Moscow to take part in their Renaissance Fair art show in a park.  Because they were out of doors there was little awareness among the fair revelers (no cell phones, no web, etc.) about what might heading their way, but (they) were aware of the eruption.

Sometime in the afternoon as it began to get dark earlier than usual and little drops of ash began to collect on their easels, they figured it was time to pack up and head home.

They got to Pullman without much problem.  But as they traveled toward Colfax and the advancing ash cloud they encountered “gray out” conditions and were essentially driving blind – except for occasional clearing during which they sometimes discovered themselves driving on the wrong side of the road.  It took them more than three hours to get from Moscow to Colfax.

They managed to reach Colfax only to discover that the Washington State Patrol had closed the highway at the bottom of the hill heading north. Consequently, they spent the next three days in the Colfax High School gymnasium enjoying food from the cafeteria, showers to clean up, gym mats to sleep on, and entertainment by Colfax High School musical groups. On reflection, few who were stranded faced such hardship.

My experience was local.  I’m a member of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra.  We were at the INB (Opera House back then) enthusiastically rehearsing with Dizzy Gillespie for a concert that night. Most of us had heard about the eruption but, like most people, had no sense of the impending doom. 

I remember going outside the stage door during a break (probably at 2 or 3 p.m.) and we noticed that it was a little darker than usual. But there was no evidence of any ash falling and no dire warnings coming over radio or TV from the stage staff, so we went back to the rehearsal.

By the time the rehearsal was over (probably at 5 p.m.) it was pretty clear that something was happening because it was suddenly very dark and ash was beginning to fall. Despite this and the absence of any warnings about driving, air quality, etc., most of us left our instruments on stage and headed out for home, dinner and to change clothes, planning to be back for an 8 p.m. downbeat.

I headed home to have dinner with our three kids and by that time it was pretty clear that we were on the verge of something very bad. I did hear from my wife and was comforted by the knowledge that she and her sister were safe. But we had no idea when she’d be able drive home.

Eventually, phone calls confirmed what by this time was obvious – no Diz tonight. Plus by this time TV and radio was full of information discouraging driving. So, most of the musicians’ instruments sat on the stage at the Opera House for three days. Diz spent several days holed up at the Sheraton (now Doubletree) until he was able to persuade a cabbie to drive him to Seattle over the North Cascades Highway.

A make-up concert was scheduled for the following September.  To the delight of the audience, Diz walked on stage wearing one of the now famous white surgical masks.

Keith LaMotte, Spokane

He was ready for work, but buses weren’t

My late husband, Bert Kile, was working at The Spokesman-Review at the time of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

The day after the eruption he got ready for work as usual. He always took the bus and I told him I didn’t think they would be running. He left anyway, and came back from the bus stop a half-hour later, covered in ash.

He decided to wait for further instructions from our city leaders.

Patsy Kile, Spokane

Stranded at Soap Lake Hospital

I was working as an RN in the Soap Lake Hospital, a small 11-bed acute-care hospital that also had 31 nursing home beds. We had a cardiac room, a nursery and a delivery room, as well as an active emergency room.

We were the only hospital with an ER from Soap Lake to Grand Coulee, so we usually admitted a lot of vacationers from that recreation and lake area. One RN was all that covered the hospital during one shift. On May 18th, I was that RN.

That morning was a nice summer day in the Columbia Basin, as usual. Since it was Sunday, my five children were out of school and taking care of themselves in Moses Lake where we lived. I received a call from home before 11 a.m. from my youngest son who was worried because his sisters were planning on going to leave and it was beginning to look stormy outside. I made a call to a friend and called him back to go to my friend’s house a few blocks away. I checked with my two teen girls and they then had permission to go to their friend’s house for a few hours until I got home around 3:30 p.m.

The staff was starting to take their breaks for lunch. I walked to the dining room and looked out a back-door window and noticed the black rolling clouds. I surmised my son had surely predicted a bad storm, then I opened the door and saw the ash falling like rain. Lots of it. We had been listening that week to the volcano updates and I knew immediately what had happened.

The picture that appeared on the Time Magazine was taken in Ephrata, four miles west of Soap Lake.

It soon became very dark and the staff became concerned about their families.

My lab technician who was “on call” and had taken a nap, awakened to the dark skies and called me and asked what time it was and wondered if he had slept into the wee morning hours. I assured him it was only about 1 p.m.

The phone was ringing off the hook, mostly with staff families worried about them. So silly, I thought, Mount St. Helens blew up. That is all. Get a grip!

Many campers and vacationers were suddenly leaving the northern lakes areas and getting bogged down on the roads because of the fine, blowing ash.

We closed all in-house doors and put blankets along the bottoms of them to keep out the fine ash, collected all the masks we could find, inventoried oxygen equipment, and answered the phone. We had radios to keep abreast of the news.

A doctor who was visiting Soap Lake, (his hometown) but now lived in Alaska came to the hospital looking for asthma medications for his little daughter. I knew his family and saw his credentials, so I just let him peruse the small pharmacy we had to find medication for her. He was most appreciative. It was surprising how many people leave for the weekend and take only enough medication for those few days.

We accepted a group of five people who were bound for Seattle, car in the ditch and no place to stay. I believe the Washington State Patrol asked if we could house them. Luckily, we had some empty rooms. We bed and boarded them for five days.

The police brought in another man, a senior, who lost his wife on the road someplace after leaving Banks Lake, she pulling the camper and he pulling the boat. He was a diabetic and hadn’t eaten that morning. We fed him and gave him a room. We finally found his wife in an Ephrata park on Wednesday.

I was very surprised at the capability of my staff that awakened to such an emergency. They were great and so helpful and offered great ideas and suggestions to help out.

Soap Lake just got a dusting of ash. The local fireman had it washed away the next day.

All my kids were safe at their friends’ homes. I was not allowed to leave for home until Thursday. The ash was so bad in Moses Lake, the State Patrol would not let us on the roads. We were very lucky to have 3 RNs in town who could man the hospital. I slept on a cot in the doctor’s lounge. My thought was I was going home on Thursday whether the State Patrol liked it or not.

As I approached Moses Lake on Thursday, I became aware of the reason I could not leave earlier. So much ash. I had previously talked with my oldest son who was 18 and asked him to order an extra filter for the car. They were going fast! When I got home the kids were there along with 4 to 5 inches of ash.

The farmers brought in their hand-lines (sprinklers) and many of the streets were being watered down in order for the ash to be hauled away. We put it in large plastic containers I used in closets for dirty clothes and dumped it out back near the alley. The owner of the apartment we lived in came and cleaned off the roof.

It was May and warm. Kids were walking around in the ash barefoot and we all worried the ash would cause small cuts in their skin. It didn’t. The farmers worried it would ruin the crops. It didn’t. The fishermen were worried it would ruin the fishing. It didn’t.

As a teen, I camped at Mount St. Helens’ Spirit Lake for a week with my family. We hiked on trails of old puma rock and picked wild berries. My step-dad went to school with old Harry Truman who chose to stay on the mountain and lost his life.

That week was quite a week!

Barbara Reitz, Coeur d’Alene