Fairchild Air Force Base canceled its annual open house. Members of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra left their instruments on stage at the Spokane Opera House, waiting for a concert with legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie that didn’t happen. Schools closed. Freeways, too. Planes stayed parked at Spokane International Airport as skies turned black, streetlights came on early in the afternoon, and it started “snowing” on what should have been a lovely spring day in May.
After two months of intensifying activity, Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington erupted at 8:32 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980. Fifty-seven people died, including Spirit Lake innkeeper Harry R. Truman, who had become a bit of a folk hero for refusing to evacuate his home. “You couldn’t pull me out with a mule team,” he was quoted as saying. “That mountain’s part of Truman and Truman’s part of that mountain.”
When the north side of St. Helens collapsed in the largest landslide in recorded history, it let loose a cataclysmic event that eventually blew 1,300 vertical feet off the top of the mountain. The ash plume from its new crater shot as high as 16 miles. Winds pushed the ash cloud to east, where it deposited its volcanic residue on a dozen states; it took two weeks for the ash to circle the globe. The force of the eruption flattened a forest of nearly 200-year-old Douglas firs and blasted them into Spirit Lake. The Toutle River, filled with fallen trees, heated mud and other debris, turned into a torrent, demolishing homes and bridges, drowning anyone or anything that was in its path.
Here in Eastern Washington, residents watched in awe as massive, ominous black clouds marched across the state from the southwest, bringing premature nighttime and inches of gray, gritty, dusty ash. Kids were called inside and in some families, the parents covered themselves from head to toe – heavy coats, bandanas for masks, ski goggles, moon boots! – and made their way to nearby grocery stores for supplies as the ash started falling. Then we hunkered down and waited.
When daylight returned the next morning, residents of Spokane awoke to a world nearly devoid of color. Ash covered our cars, our streets, our yards. We were advised to avoid driving, not only to help crews more easily clear roadways, but because the ash would clog a vehicle’s air filter and wreak havoc under the hood. We were asked to stay inside, and when we did venture out, we were encouraged to wear masks to keep from breathing in the ash particles.
There was no such thing as “remote learning” in those days – or even cable TV in some parts of town – and it didn’t take long for bored children to begin begging their parents to go outside. Some parents relented, making sure their children were well protected from the ashy deposits. When kids stamped the ash, it kicked up like fine, dry powder on an ungroomed ski hill.
I was 12 years old when Mount St. Helens erupted, and living near Mead High School. The neighborhood wasn’t fully developed yet, and the vacant fields that surrounded our home were our unofficial playgrounds. When we were finally allowed to go out, my siblings and I joined kids from the neighborhood in exploring the fields. It didn’t take long to spot the trails in the ash. These tiny footprints meandered for several feet, looping in on themselves a few times before ending with a dead bee, or grasshopper or other insect, like some horrible punctuation mark, presumably suffocated by the ash.
It was a stark reminder that for all of the fun of missing school and being part of “something big,” the eruption of Mount St. Helens was a monumental event in Eastern Washington. And in the days that followed the eruption, the leaders and residents of our region struggled to deal with something few had imagined possible.
We look back at how Spokane’s two daily newspapers, the morning Spokesman-Review and the afternoon Spokane Daily Chronicle, reported this moment in history.
May 19, 1980
“Volcano explodes!” screamed the lead headline in the morning edition of The Spokesman-Review. Below it across the width of the page was an astonishing photo of the mountain eruption, captured by staff photographer Christopher Anderson. Staff writers Robert Rose and Rick Bonino, in a story with a Vancouver dateline, described a “killer volcano,” with eight known fatalities, and quoted a pilot who described the scene as looking like “an atomic bomb had hit the area.”
Another staff writer, Jim Borden, had an upclose look at the eruption. He and his wife were en route to California for a vacation and had stopped at Morton, Washington, about 30 miles north of the mountain, for the night. At 8 a.m. Sunday morning, they continued on their journey, and it wasn’t long before they spotted the mountain, which “appeared quiet and calm.”
The tranquility didn’t last.
“But a couple of minutes later, we spotted a puff of black smoke rising from the volcano, and within five minutes, immense dark clouds were reaching thousands of feet into the air and spreading out in all directions.
“The mushroom cloud of ash soon grew large enough to block the sun over much of the surrounding area. Smoke appeared to escape not only from the top of the mountain but also from a vent in the side – but I saw only smoke, no fire.”
The Bordens watched for about half and hour, then stopped again on Interstate 5 near Kelso to watch nature in action.
It “was a fantastic, exhilarating experience,” he wrote, “like seeing the ocean for the first time.”
Back at home, the city had declared an emergency, local schools were closed, the city buses switched to a limited schedule, flights in and out of Spokane International Airport were canceled, and a Red Cross shelter was set up in the field house at Lewis and Clark High School.
And the weather forecast said this: “Somewhere beyond the gray is considerable cloudiness today. If the day dawns with more of the ash fall and darkness occasioned by Mount St. Helens’ eruptions, neither the weather nor the time may be apparent.”
That afternoon, the Chronicle headline declared “Ash Monday delivers anxiety.”
An unbylined story on the front page described a region at a standstill, “blanketed by up to an inch of ash on the ground and choked by a stubborn cloud of suspended particles that made breathing difficult, driving nearly impossible and just plain living an unpleasant experience.”
That day the Chronicle also talked to local health officials. “Potential health hazards from the volcanic ash covering Spokane weren’t fully known today, but cautious medical authorities continued to recommend that residents avoid the particulate matter as much as possible,” according to the story published under the headline, “Advice: Stay inside; health woes unknown.”
As worries mounted on St. Helens that a 200-foot high dam of debris keeping a swollen Spirit Lake plugged up might fail and threaten several small communities, and the number of missing people approached 100, attention in Spokane turned to clean up.
“County’s plea: Clean up mess now to reduce perils from volcanic ash” read the front page of The Spokesman-Review that morning. “More than 100 million cubic yards of volcanic ash and flecks of hardened magma have wafted across Eastern Washington since Sunday, with accumulations on the ground running from half an inch in Spokane and North Idaho to more than three inches in the Yakima Valley,” columnist Chris Peck reported.
Today’s weather pun? “People who survive today’s weather will have true grit.”
And for a bit of perspective? The headline on one of the newspaper’s editorials that morning read: “We’re better off than Pompeii.”
There is that.
Meanwhile, the Chronicle also turned its attention to clean up, with photos of locals clearing streets of the ashy debris. The paper also reported that a 200-truck convoy was set to leave Missoula loaded with “perishables” and bound for the “ash-whitened Inland Empire.”
What allowed this was the re-opening of Interstate 90, as well as some other highways, including 2 and 395.
Sheriff Larry V. Erickson said cleanup was going well, but he was keeping an eye on the weather forecast, which said a light rain was possible.
“My best guess is that it’ll be the end of the week before we get anywhere with cleanup,” he told the Chronicle. “I don’t see much possibility of lifting of the state of emergency before sometime late in the week.”
The pushback was well underway, as evidenced by the lead headline in The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday: “ ‘Emergency’ – Is sheriff crying wolf?” Local businesses, it seems, were upset they were being kept closed.
The S-R noted, “The thrill was gone out of sitting at home, and indications popped up all over Eastern Washington’s most populous county that businessmen and the public don’t consider Mount St. Helens ash an emergency at all.”
As local taverns opened, and store owners declared all was well, Erickson urged people to hang tight for another day: “We are trying to take every action that we can to protect the public health and safety of the citizens of Spokane County.”
The Chronicle, the afternoon paper, had the big news of the day: President Jimmy Carter had declared a major disaster for the state of Washington and was en route to Portland, where he would meet with state and federal officials, including Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, Rep. Tom Foley and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, a former and future governor of Idaho. The next day, he was scheduled to survey the volcano via helicopter.
On Thursday, The Spokesman-Review reported that President Carter was planning a stop in Spokane later that day, accompanied by Foley and Sen. Warren Magnuson, during his tour of the Mount St. Helens devastation. The plan called for a 30-minute visit to see agricultural areas.
Elsewhere on the front page, the paper reported that the community was lurching back to life: “Spokane’s grueling four-day siege of cabin fever began to ease Wednesday as public officials recommended opening of stores, resumption of mail delivery and full schedule bus service. Schools are to reopen Tuesday.”
Meanwhile, staff writer John Kafentzis reported that while the “dust situation improved slightly Wednesday,” particulate levels “remained more than 100 times higher than normal.”
Ron Edgar, a chemist for the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority, continued to advise caution. “If you can avoid it, don’t go outside,” he said.
On Wednesday, particulate levels were recorded at 3,000 micrograms per cubic meter, “considerably lower than the 35,000 microgram readings collected Monday.” The article noted that levels of 875 micrograms or higher are enough to cause an air pollution emergency declaration.
Chronicle staff writers Bill Morlin and Doug Floyd were on the presidential visit. “What I’m doing here in Spokane is obviously to learn as much as I can about the effects on Eastern Washington and northern Idaho and parts of Montana where the fall of ash has been severe.”
Also, in the bottom right corner of the front page, was this story:
“Blast destroys car
“MADRID (AP) — An explosion early today destroyed the mayor’s car in nearby Torrejon de Ardoz. Mayor Lope Chillon Diez, a socialist, blamed right-wing activists.
“The car was parked outside the mayor’s home.”
Proof, perhaps, that we were beginning to move on?
The next morning, Rick Bonino had the Review’s lead story on Carter’s visit. The president said that while federal dollars would be made available to aid in disaster relief, state and local officials should be prepared to shoulder some of the costs. He also verbally agreed to Idaho Gov. John Evans’ request for a disaster declaration for the state’s eight northern counties.
On the dust front, the improvements from Thursday’s 1/2 inch of rain were proving to be short lived. Winds returned Thursday afternoon, kicking up more of the dreaded ash.
“Although we have had rain in the area today, all citizens must wear face masks because volcanic ash remains in the air,” Sheriff Erickson said in partially extending a limited state of emergency. “This is for the citizens’ own protection because the danger still exists.”
The Chronicle’s lead story that afternoon was from the Associated Press, but had a local angle: “Spokane pair survive flight into eye of volcano.”
Keith and Dorothy Stoffel, both geologists, had been in Yakima the night before, where Keith Stoffel gave a speech in which he predicted that any eruption of St. Helens would involve its north flank, based on the large bulge that had grown in the mountain. (He was correct.) The two secured permission from government scientists to take a flight around the mountain. They took off from Yakima at 7:50 a.m. that Sunday morning.
After a few passes around the mountain, they flew over the crater to change their flight path. When they were right on top of the mountain, they looked down and saw the north side begin to give way.
“We were almost directly over it,” Dorothy Stoffel told the AP. “The pilot dipped so he could get a better view.”
Then they saw a massive column of ash heading right for them and they got out of the area as quickly as they could.
“The whole thing reminded me of an atom bomb,” she said.
Dorothy Stoffel retold that story to The Spokesman-Review in December, in advance of the opening of the “Mount St. Helens Critical Memory 40 Years Later” exhibit at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
Inside the paper was a commentary by Tom Koenninger, then editor of the Columbian newspaper in Vancouver. The body of staff photographer Reid Blackburn had been found 7 miles from the mountain, where he and his car were buried in 7 tons of ash. Blackburn, 27, was not shooting for the Columbian that day, but was on assignment for National Geographic and donating his services to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Our anguish for Reid is deep as we go about our job of covering the story of Mount St. Helens and the other major and minor stories that are grist for every daily newspaper,” Koenninger wrote.
“We ache. For Reid was one of us.”
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