A fleet-footed member of Eastern Washington’s 400-meter relay, Tom Hewett wanted a memento from the 1980 NAIA national championships.
Hewett, a Lewis and Clark High graduate, paced the searing campus of Abilene (Texas) Christian University searching for vendor booths, soon coming across two Abilene Christian students selling T-shirts.
When a red-and-white clad Hewett reached for his wallet, a young woman recognized his EWU designation.
“Eastern Washington. The volcano team, right?” she asked with a West Texas twang.
Hewett and the team’s 11 other national qualifiers – the Eagles placed sixth in the team standings – heard similar sentiments that week.
“Nice to see you guys made it out of the volcano,” a meet official told Hewett.
Cheney was 337 miles from Mount St. Helens’ historic eruption four days earlier, but some newspaper readers in Texas perceived it to be much closer.
The Abilene Reporter-News had published a story on the EWU team’s strange and circuitous trip to the meet because of the state’s natural disaster, which happened 40 years ago Monday.
Volcanic ash covered most of the Northwest, shutting down Spokane International Airport and major roads before the Eagles were set to fly to Texas for the national meet.
The Eagles nearly scratched but willed their way to the Lone Star State.
‘Failure wasn’t an option’
The forecast was initially gloomy.
Hours after after the eruption, longtime EWU track coach Jerry Martin informed the team it likely wouldn’t be making the trip to Texas, a week after winning its sixth straight NAIA District I title.
Around 8 a.m. that Sunday, the top blew off St. Helens – the biggest volcanic explosion in American history – showering the region with ash that reached the EWU campus by the afternoon.
The team’s send-off barbecue was immediately canceled.
“Several of us were at a house off campus on that Sunday when it started to ‘snow,’ ” said Spokane resident Mike Balderson, who was also a member of the 400-relay team. “Not unusual in Cheney in May, so we didn’t think too much of it – except it was hot.
“After a few minutes, we turned the TV on and found out it was the volcano. That is when the streetlights came on at 4 in the afternoon.”
The aftermath: 57 deaths, travel restrictions, $1.1 billion in property damage, economic turmoil and ash that reached 11 states and five Canadian provinces.
The ash shut down many of the major roads and airports in the region. But with the wind blowing east, the Seattle air was still clear, namely at Sea-Tac airport.
Steve Quigley, who qualified in discus, said the team approached Martin with a plan to drive to Seattle and fly to Dallas, about 2 hours west of Abilene. He obliged.
Martin got the administrative OK to make the drive west, but the school wouldn’t let the team use its travel vans.
“We were going to get there, one way or another,” Hewett said. “We were willing to drive to Texas, especially me. It was like the movie ‘Apollo 13’ for us – failure wasn’t an option.”
A few of the athletes drove themselves to Seattle, while others reluctantly piled up athletes in their respective vehicles, knowing the ash would likely do a number on their cars’ intake systems.
Quigley volunteered his 1971 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Balderson drove his green 1959 Rambler station wagon.
Coach Martin rode shotgun in the Rambler, and Hewett was in the back seat along with Greg Rooney (hurdles) and Randy Harris (400 relay), a trip that started out on back roads because Interstate 90 near Cheney was closed.
Like the height of today’s coronavirus pandemic, area residents were advised to stay indoors and wear protective masks, so as not to inhale the ash. Each athlete had a small towel over his face “like bandits” in the vehicles, where ash was still getting into the car and engine.
“About 30 minutes into the drive, we were about ready to give up,” Hewett said. “Ash was everywhere. We had to stop about every 20 minute to wipe things off.”
“Just scooped out the sand grit from the oil and air filter every stop until we cleared the ash,” Balderson said.
Once the vehicles reached Ephrata, I-90 was open, and it was a clear cruise to Seattle, where most of the team stayed the night at Rooney’s parents’ house to save on hotel costs.
EWU’s plane tickets to Texas were originally set for Spokane’s airport, but in the era before the internet, switching flights wasn’t a swift fix.
When the team arrived to Sea-Tac airport, it didn’t have tickets for a Seattle-to-Dallas flight.
Martin made it happen, dealing with an airline that went out of business two years later.
“Coach had us all line up with our gear at the ticket counter while he negotiated with Braniff Airlines to see if they would exchange the tickets for us,” Balderson said. “It was taking quite a while, and I think the people at the counter just saw the gigantic line forming behind us and knew coach wasn’t going to give up, so they just gave up and we were on our way.”
Stepping onto an airplane may have been the biggest victory for EWU that week, but good results followed.
Vic White won a national title in the triple jump (52 feet, 8 inches) and placed second in the high jump (7-0). Brad Boland took second in the javelin (222-7 1/2), third in discus (193-4 1/2) and sixth in the shot put (56-10).
EWU, which was transitioning to the NCAA, was also allowed to compete in the NCAA Division II national meet a week later in Pomona, California, placing fourth.
Chuck Cacek (discus, shot put), Jeff Frederick (triple jump), Roy Martin (discus), Mark Pierce (javelin), Kelshall Rivas (100, 200), Ron Thomas (triple jump) and Check Epps (400 relay) were also part of the Texas journey. The squad was inducted into the EWU Athletics Hall of Fame last year.
Their story was first shared after an Abilene reporter found EWU’s living quarters the night the team arrived at Abilene Christian, curious about their home state’s condition.
Mount St. Helens was the biggest story in the country, but the gravity of the eruption didn’t hit much of the team until its departure from Seattle.
“We could see the volcano still smoking as we were taking off,” said Hewett, who now lives in the Dallas area. “Everyone in the plane was silent. It really put things in perspective.”