Ash and aftermath of Mount St. Helens: Our readers remember

  • 15 min to read

EDITOR’S NOTE: The eruption of Mount St. Helens was 35 years ago Monday, but judging from the response from readers who were asked to send us their recollections, the event remains freshly etched in their minds. More than three dozen sent us letters recalling that Sunday morning of May 18, 1980. Following is a small selection of the letters and photographs we received; all the letters and many of the photographs will be published Tuesday at yakimaherald.com. Our thanks to those who took the time to record and send their experiences. 

 

Glenn Rice, Yakima

On May 18, 1980, my family was on the way to a summer home in the Cascades. As we approached the “Y” at the intersection of Highway 12 and State Route 410, the sky became dark with clouds, wind, dust, thunder and lightning. This was different because the air also smelled of sulfur. I said, “Turn the radio on; something is happening.” And indeed it was! We turned around, and it took an hour and a half to return to Yakima because of poor visibility. The sun seemingly set in the east, it was dark, the streetlights came on, the birds were silent and the crickets were out.

I called my mother, who lived in Selah, to see if she was all right. She said yes. But she added: “I have lived through two world wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression and cancer. If this is the end of the world, the hell with it. I’m ready.” It wasn’t, of course, and life went on.

 

Ramona Murray, Selah

May 18, 1980, looked like the beginning of a beautiful spring day in the Wenas Valley. The hay fields looked good on our cattle ranch and our cattle were grazing on the other side of the hill.

Suddenly, the sky turned black with red and green lightning and something was falling from the sky. We thought it was rain, but it was ash. Mount St. Helens had erupted.

The sparrows clustered by our rooftop near the porch light. Thank goodness the power stayed on and radio station KIT kept us informed.

In the afternoon, my husband, Austin, and our son Dave tied kerchiefs over their noses, took flashlights and left in the pickup to see about our cattle. The cattle had broken down the fence and were coming home. One cow died. 

My daughter Valerie and I went to bed for a while. At about 7:30 p.m., the ash stopped falling and the sky was light. We stepped outside. It smelled like a chemical lab and it looked like the moon. Everything was gray. A red tailed hawk was searching in the sky, cawing. The little bantam rooster was crowing. These were welcome sounds.

 

Nancy M. Burgess, Yakima

I went out to take the covers off the tomatoes, and when I went in, I told my wife, “There’s a big storm coming. A really black cloud in the southwest is heading our way.”

Later, at church, we were sitting in the choir, and the ash started falling like rain on the slanted window above us. Our priest told us not to worry. He had been in Italy during World War II and Mount Vesuvius had erupted. He said this was not nearly as bad. He was the only one who didn’t make it home.

When we got home, I went next door to check on my 80-year-old mom. I was worried she would be frightened. Instead, she had set out all of her candles and filled the bathtub with water.

My sister in New York told me later that she had tried to call our mom when she heard about the eruption. The operator told her that all circuits were down and that Yakima had been wiped out. She was frantic before she finally got through to me.

I was in the State Patrol. It was my day off, but all off-duty personnel had been called in to work. They sent me out to the Naches junction to turn back any cars heading up toward the mountains. We stopped one car, and the man said his kids were camping up that way and nobody was going to keep him from going to find them. We let him pass.

Lightning was flashing all around us, but it wasn’t like it usually is. This lightning flashed horizontally. The hair on our heads was standing straight up. It was really pretty scary. We finally went into the gas station to get out of the ash and wind.

 

Dana Russell Jones, Yakima 

Do I remember? Of course I remember. 

I was spending the weekend with my parents in Buckley, along with my husband at the time, two dogs and four small children, the oldest with chickenpox. As we were getting ready to leave for Grandview, my mother came to tell us the mountain had blown. 

Afraid that we wouldn’t make it home and would become stuck somewhere, we borrowed my parents’ pop-up camper, loaded supples and headed out, hoping to make it over Snoqualmie Pass. Chinook Pass was already closed, and we heard on the radio that Snoqualmie Pass was closed at North Bend. We stayed Sunday night in Carnation with friends, watching the horrific aftermath and plotting our course for the following day.

Waking up, we heard Stevens Pass was still open. We headed out, hoping to make it home by that night. Halfway across the pass, though, we wondered why we weren’t seeing any cars. We found out the pass had closed, trapping us with ash all around, which made it almost impossible to see. Going very slowly, we made it to Quincy. We were stopped by police and told we had to go to the school, where stranded motorists were staying.

When I told the police officer one of our children had chickenpox, all that changed. The hospital agreed to let us camp in their parking lot. But the janitor saw our flimsy pop-up trailer and knew ash would seep in, so he called his wife, and they took all six of us in — chickenpox, dogs and all. These wonderful people gave us housing and food without taking a cent. Three days later, we were able to travel on back roads past the barricades and make it back to Grandview. 

 

Bette Schlagel Rogers, Yakima

At 4 p.m., I left work, only to see the sun darkened and snow falling from the sky. It was already hot and humid in Kansas City in May, so why snow?

On the drive home, a fine gray material continued to fall and swirl around the cars. It was an eerie event in the Midwest, where we had lived for four years. Kansas City had many extremes in weather and this was tornado season, but never had snow fallen in May. Some folks panicked. Of course, I knew what it was. Two days earlier, Mount St. Helens, southwest of my childhood home in Yakima, had erupted, spewing gray ash all over the state. And now, two days later, the ash cloud had reached the Midwest. 

The next day, my parents, Gordon and Hazel Schlagel, arrived at my home by car, having left Yakima at 5 a.m. Sunday, May 18, for a granddaughter’s graduation. As they traveled, a gas station attendant in Ontario, Ore., asked if they had left Yakima because of the eruption. My parents were stunned to hear that their hometown was covered with ash. Hasty phone calls were made to check on family, pets and their East Selah orchards. 

After a two-week visit, my folks drove back to Yakima to find their farm covered with ash. The apple trees were no longer green. In spite of the fear of financial ruin, that year’s apple crop was wonderful, and Mom’s famous flower beds produced bountiful blooms.

My parents sent many little jars of ash, which were used by my teacher co-workers during science classes. No doubt somewhere in Kansas City there are still jars of St. Helens ash from our Yakima farm. 

 

Clar Pratt, Yakima

Just before the 18th, I had been to a large camp out north of Ellensburg. I headed home to Yakima, but when I got to the Interstate 82 junction I found the way south closed. I drove into Ellensburg and spent the night, figuring to drive home through the canyon. But that way was closed to all traffic. I then elected to sneak over Durr Road into the Wenas Valley. No signs there, and I proceeded south. 

The sky had largely cleared, but ash in this area was several inches deep. As I drove all alone, I wondered if I was being a little too confident should I experience a car malfunction of some sort. But I continued south. 

About halfway through and longing for the sight of Selah, I noted a small sandpiper moving around just on the edge of the road. I looked down on the bird from my truck and noted that it gave every appearance of frustration. It did not seem to even notice my truck beside it. The bird ran around in a small area, apparently frustrated — if birds can get that way. And I guessed that ash had buried its nest.

There was nothing I could do, and I drove on. But I’ve never forgotten the pathetic sight of that seemingly frantic small bird trying to deal with the effects of the Mount St. Helens eruption.

 

Susan La Riviere, Yakima 

Once the new year of 1980 hit, seismologists and volcanologists became alerted to steam coming out of Mount St. Helens’ dome. Small earthquakes were noted and citizens were warned that there might be a volcanic eruption within the year. Here in Yakima, we were not warned about emergency precautions to take if an eruption happened. Although volcanic activity was part of our conversations, no one seriously considered that the mountain would explode. 

On Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, I was on the phone talking long distance to my parents who were visiting relatives in south Louisiana. I said, “It looks like a terrible dust storm is coming from the west. The sky is black in that direction and it isn’t yet noon. I also heard some thunder so we might get ... Mom? Dad? Are you there?” All phone connections were cut off. I heard a loud clap of what sounded like thunder, the windows shuttered and a storm of darkness surrounded the house. We could not see the street lamp at the corner of Barge and North 36th Avenue.

The television was not working, but KIT radio announcers came in clearly with news about the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. We were told to fill the bathtub with water because it was unknown if the ash was radioactive. Farmers were warned to shelter their animals, and owners of domestic animals were instructed to bring all the pets into the house. The sky rained sand the rest of May 18. 

Water did not wash the sand from roofs. Instead, the sand absorbed the water and the combined weight caused many roofs to collapse. Yakima was buried in sand and the sky was filled with powdered ash for many months.

 

Jeanne Richardson, Yakima

Sunday mornings were a very busy time in our house, getting the kids ready for Sunday school. We never had the TV or radio on in the morning, so we didn’t have a clue that Mount St. Helens had erupted.

After the kids had breakfast, we dropped them at Bethel Nazarene Church on Mead Avenue. My husband and I decided to go to VIPS restaurant in Union Gap while they were in their class. When we arrived at the church, we noticed some people looking at the horizon to the southwest. As we were leaving, we turned on the radio and heard that Mount St. Helens had erupted. That was about 9:30 a.m.

While we were having breakfast, it started getting dark. Then the streetlights came on, and all we wanted to do was go pick up our kids. When we got back to the church, everyone was leaving. One of our friends, Mary Lou, was nervous about driving in the dark with all the ash in the air, so we took her home. 

I was working for Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Co. and was scheduled to work the 2:30 to 10 p.m. shift. I called to see if there was any time off. They said no. They were trying to call everyone in to work. The first thing people do in any emergency is pick up their telephone and let everyone know they are OK. 

In 1980, we had local telephone operators, located on Yakima Avenue. Very few calls were going through because the circuits were overloaded. When people couldn’t get their calls through, they would dial “O” for the local telephone operator. We would try for them. Most of the calls wouldn’t go through, but we were able to give them an update and tell them why their calls weren’t going through.

When the downtown area was closed to all traffic except emergency vehicles so the ash could be cleaned up, the telephone company would send a taxicab to pick up the telephone operators.

 

Alan Taylor, Wapato 

May of 1980 presented another “normal” year for cherry growers in the Yakima Valley, as normal as cherry seasons can be. Those of us at Northwest Cherry Growers were feeling pretty good. Projections pointed to a good crop, and retail promotions were ready to roll in June, with special focus on the Fourth of July period.

Then came May 18. The volcanic ash, amounting to several tons per acre, fell on crops including cherries. Media reports were telling consumers across the U.S. that the ash had poisoned the fruit.

What to do? None of us had ever experienced a poisoned crop.

It was time to hit the phones. Over the next two weeks, we contacted newspaper editors and broadcast news directors all over the country. Our overall message: The cherry crop is fine.

First of all, only about one-sixth of the crop had been hit by the volcanic ash. Second, the ash did not poison the crop. Third, because we are blessed with volcanic soil, we now had more of a good thing thanks to Mount St. Helens. (Yes, No. 3 was a bit of a stretch.)

Well, all those hours on the phone paid off. From all over the country, reports explained what we had told the media. What consumer feedback we could gather showed we had indeed turned the corner. 

Feeling really good about ourselves, we put the final touches on the supermarket promotions. It looked as if it would be a good, maybe even great, year for the growers.

It was not to be, as once again Mother Nature took charge. It rained for days, and the crop was ruined. 

 

Rhoda and Buzz Chevara, Ellensburg

On May 18, our group was on the second day of a canoe float trip down the Winchester Wastaway, about 10 miles east of George, when we heard a big bang. We thought it was a hot-rod jet fighter. When we were taking the canoes out, these funny-looking clouds came over. We still didn’t know what had happened until we returned some in our party to the boat launch and two guys told us Mount St. Helens had blown. About then, the heavier grit started hitting us.

By the time we got to Interstate 90, visibility was zero, so we pulled off at the first light we could see, which was George. We then spent the next three days in the George Community Hall. We weren’t bad off with food and sleeping bags, etc. We did share with the many people brought in off the freeway, as the dust would destroy their car engines.

The local farmers cruised the freeway with their diesel tractors. They brought in many people who had been stranded. Also, the owner of Martha’s Inn restaurant brought food over and said, “No one is going hungry.” Things would have been much worse if not for these helpful local people.

After three days, the State Patrol escorted anybody with a running vehicle north to Quincy, as we couldn’t go west on I-90. About 75 cars went.

 

Paul and Krista St. Hilaire, Wapato

We were in church in Wapato when the mountain blew. Someone came into the church and spoke to the priest for a minute. Father very quickly ended his sermon and flew through the rest of the Mass. By then the sky had turned very dark. He told us the mountain had blown and to go home as quickly as possible.

Ash was already falling, and before we got halfway home, it was so dark and the ash so thick that we couldn’t see the front of the car. We could see small streaks of different-colored lightning in the ash surrounding us, some bluish, some orange, some white. It seemed like it took forever to get home.

Our excitement came the next day. We had asparagus in season, and our cutter showed up, so I went outside and started hosing down the ash in the driveway and loading area to keep the dust down. About that time, some guy drove in and wanted to know if he could take some pictures and was it dangerous to be in the ash. We had no idea, but our cutters wanted to work and we had asparagus to deliver. 

It turned out he was a freelance photographer. He took several pictures and followed Paul around visiting other crop sites. He stayed for lunch and regaled us with stories of exploits abroad and around the states. A few weeks later, we got a call from Time magazine asking for our permission to use a picture of Paul in their magazine. His picture was in the June 1980 issue on page 35.

 

Vi Budden, Yakima

I started my day by driving to the Yakima airport from Sunnyside to catch a Hughes Airwest flight to Los Angeles for a travel school that I was attending. However, after the plane took off, we were informed that Mount St. Helens had erupted and we were unable to stop in Seattle, so our flight went directly to Los Angeles.

The next night, we were at the Johnny Carson show and he said, “Did you hear about Yakima, where St. Helens erupted? Anyone here from Yakima?” So I raised my hand, and he asked, “How is it there?” And I said, “Yakky!”

All the flights to Yakima had been canceled, so we had to stay a few extra days in Los Angeles. We were given chits to use to eat and drink on in the hotel. So I was sitting at the bar, and a gentleman from Australia asked if he could buy me a cocktail. I said, “No, but I will buy you one.” He said it was his first time in America, and he wondered if all American women bought men drinks. He said this is very nice. So I let him think this for a while, and then I decided I should tell him I had all these chits to use. So that was my experience. 

When I finally arrived back in Sunnyside, I found that my swimming pool, which had been painted the day before, was ruined from all the ash that had stuck to it, and it had to be redone. 

 

Robert (Bob) A. Wolff, Yakima

I was the commanding officer of the Army’s Reserve 737th Transportation Company (that served in Vietnam and Afghanistan) conducting secure blackout night operations at the Yakima Firing Center on May 16-18, 1980, deep into the YFC, closer to the Hanford Nuclear Reserve than Yakima. 

Troops arrived on a Friday evening for night operations on Friday and Saturday, with a Sunday morning field breakfast. 

We heard the explosion and thought it was a sonic boom or firing from other units. The nature of our exercise required no personal electronics and this was well before cellphones or iPads. We had no idea that Mount St. Helens had erupted.

Seeing the large, dark cloud, thinking storm, we packed quickly for departure. Reaching the gate to enter the main YFC post, a young sergeant flagged me down and yelled: “Sir, you gotta pull your convoy over and prepare for nuclear fallout!” We got a quick story, told him that I was two miles from my headquarters and if he could stop 30 some vehicles and 110 troops with his .45 pistol to go ahead, but I was pulling out.

When we arrived at our center, the ash was beginning to fall. We quickly secured weapons and equipment, made phone calls to necessary officials and held a company meeting. I asked for volunteers of medics, cooks, mechanics and tow truck operators to set up an emergency relief station. All others were released to attend to their families’ needs.

We conducted rescue operations for the next three days, helping stranded motorists and civilians with towing, repairing vehicles, feeding, and providing cots and blankets. Our unit was recognized by the governor for our actions. 

 

Gil and Beth Miller, Yakima

My family and I moved here from Junction City, Kan., in 1941, but we had never seen anything like this. 

My son Chris and I, along with three other dads and their sons, were fishing at McDaniel Lake near the Nile area. A bright Sunday morning and we were catching fish. We had heard about the possibility of Mount St. Helens erupting. Suddenly there was a tremendous roar, and we thought it was going to rain. 

The lake sits in kind of a low area, and all we could see was the top of the trees. Then this cloud of blackness like I have never seen came rolling over the trees. Then we saw the sprinkles on the lake, but our coats were not getting wet. It hit us all at once, and we knew the mountain had blown.

We dashed for the campsite, but by the time we got there we had to use flashlights to hook up the trailers. It was jet black out, but we finally made it down from the lake. It took three hours to make the trip.

We were concerned about breathing the dust and what it was doing to our engines. Another concern was our families back in Yakima. There was no radio contact, nothing but static. All we could do was hope everyone was OK. I’ll never forget that ride.

On Monday morning, I went to my job at Simplot in Moxee. We have a scale for weighing fertilizer trucks that is 10 feet wide and 70 feet long. On Friday when we closed, the scale was at zero. When we returned Monday, it had ash on it — 1,140 pounds. That is 35 tons per acre. 

We were going to have a barbecue in honor of my wife’s 44th birthday, but needless to say, Mother Nature had other plans.

 

Diane Murphy, Yakima

A beautiful, sunny, spring Sunday morning turned to night as a dark cloud appeared from the west and turned day to night. Street lights came on and then we could no longer see the lights as black ash piled up on the windowsill. Birds stopped singing and charged particles caused purple and green lightning to flash.

There were no emergency broadcasts on TV. We relied on KIT radio. The announcer said to not breathe the ash and if anyone had an encyclopedia to look up volcano and call the station to tell us when this was going to stop. The heaviest black sand blanketed the Valley while the lighter while fallout went farther east and blew around for years. A two-pound coffee can of ash could weigh 20 pounds. We had no shelter for livestock and the ash weighed down their grass.

On Monday morning, our Valley looked like a moonscape. The airport was closed. We all wore masks and began the cleanup. We learned to work from the top down — roof first, then sidewalks, driveways and patios. The city asked us to pile it so they could come pick it up with trucks. When cars drove over the piles, ash blew back into the air. It was dumped at Chesterley Park, which today is a premier, flat soccer field. The ash can still be found in the soil. Convoys brought food from Seattle as the stores were depleted.

When schools reopened, the district asked us to fill out forms that read, “What do you want us to do with your child in the event of an imminent eruption?” Mount St. Helens continued to spew ash, but never at the volume of the May 18 eruption.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Sports Alerts

Weather Alerts