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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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First person: An overnight jaunt turns into a rush to get home when a volcano comes calling

Air police officers stand beside a line of evacuation vehicles from Fairchild Air Base, Spokane. The base was having it's annual Open House with approx. 60,000 people viewing aircrafft and static exhibits. With the explosion of Mt. St. Helens and the lack of adequate radio or news reports on the extent of ash cloud....most of the people were still enjoying the show when ash started falling on spokane....getting 60,000 people out of the airbase turned into one hectic chore, compounded by the total darkness. J. BART RAYNIAK/ The Spokesman-Review (J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)
Air police officers stand beside a line of evacuation vehicles from Fairchild Air Base, Spokane. The base was having it's annual Open House with approx. 60,000 people viewing aircrafft and static exhibits. With the explosion of Mt. St. Helens and the lack of adequate radio or news reports on the extent of ash cloud....most of the people were still enjoying the show when ash started falling on spokane....getting 60,000 people out of the airbase turned into one hectic chore, compounded by the total darkness. J. BART RAYNIAK/ The Spokesman-Review (J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)

For Bill Anderson and his traveling companions, the first hint of trouble came from the oddly gray skies south of U.S. Highway 2 near Creston, Washington.

The morning of May 18, 1980, had dawned bright and sunny, yet something seemed off, recalled Anderson, who also wrote a three-page memoir about the adventure.

Things would soon get more confusing on a weekend that began in Spokane on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon.

Leaving their young children with a babysitter, Bill and his wife Judy piled into their car, picked up friends Dennis and Margie Riechmann and set off on Highway 2 for a 65-mile drive west to Wilbur, Washington.

The occasion was Wilbur’s annual “Wild Goose Bill Days,” a change of pace from Spokane’s Lilac Torchlight Parade scheduled for that same Saturday night.

After sleeping at the home of Dennis Riechmann’s father in Wilbur, the foursome awoke to sunny skies. With Memorial Day only two weeks away, they visited the Wilbur cemetery to pay respects to the Riechmanns’ relatives.

Setting off for home at 11 a.m., the travelers noticed that while the northern horizon was clear blue, dark clouds began to fill the skies to the south.

And not your typical cumulus cloud, the foursome noted. They turned on the radio, but got only static.

“Are we in for some kind of storm?” Anderson asked the group. “Nothing to worry about, right?”

Ten miles later, hunger and curiosity brought them to Deb’s Cafe in Creston, the regulars mixed with the visitors and discussed the storm to the south.

Moments later, in walked the owner, Deb Copenhaver, a two-time world saddle bronc riding champion with a gift for understatement.

“Our ears perked up as (Copenhaver) calmly informed some friends of his that the lights are on in Yakima,” Anderson wrote.

Deb Copenhaver, photographed in his restaurant in Creston in March 1980, was the man who informed his customers that Mount St. Helens had erupted on May 18, 1980.
Deb Copenhaver, photographed in his restaurant in Creston in March 1980, was the man who informed his customers that Mount St. Helens had erupted on May 18, 1980.

Apprising the stunned expressions in the café, Copenhaver look around and said, “Oh, I guess you hadn’t heard: Mount St. Helens blew this morning at 8 a.m.”

Not the types to overreact, the Andersons and Riechmanns ordered lunch and looked out the north-facing windows and a sky of blue.

Nevertheless, the food was consumed faster than usual. “We paid our check and walked out to the car, and oh, my goodness,” wrote Anderson, who now lives in Western Washington. “The eeriness of it all!”

As they jumped in the car, the foursome saw a southern horizon that was almost black.

Anderson wrote that “The motherly instincts of Judy and Margie quickly surface.”

“Get us home, Bill,” they said in unison.

En route home, the travelers observed the strange behavior of the cattle.

“They were so confused, and then they headed to the barns for milking even though it was late in the morning,” Anderson said.

To the west, the grayness was overtaking the blue sky, while the southern sky had turned coal-black.

By the time they reached Spokane, Anderson wrote, there was only a “peek hole” of blue on the northern horizon.

Traffic piled up as the ash-storm halted the annual open house at Fairchild Air Force Base, but parents and children were reunited by 2 p.m.

“It was a weekend to remember,” Anderson said.

Contact the writer:

(509) 459-5437

jima@spokesman.com

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