Eruptions

Part 2 of your recollections of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

You can read Part 1 here.

You can also check out an amazing set of satellite images spanning 1979-2010 at the NASA Earth Observatory. Great stuff!

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Eruption plume from Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980. Image courtesy of the USGS/CVO.

Peter Carlton
My sister and I were playing in our backyard in West Seattle when we heard the boom. I was 6 years old. I remember lots of phone calls with our relatives in Yakima, watching footage on TV, and bitterly wishing that the wind had been blowing towards us so our school would close too.

Justin Stanchfield
I was eighteen and in my final week of high school when Mt. St Helens erupted. Of course we all had heard the news earlier in the day and seen some of the initial pictures, but living on a ranch in southwest Montana, not far from Butte, none of us expected to actually be impacted by the event. Late afternoon we were sorting cattle when a dull, blue-gray cloud filled the sky. The cattle, restless through most of the day, became oddly quiet, and still we told ourselves it was only a storm front and not volcanic ash we were seeing. By morning, the ground, our cars, the entire world it seemed, was covered by a thin gray film. Before the end of the day various emergencies had been declared and people were warned to stay in as much as possible, (which most of us ignored)

But, by far the biggest impact the eruption had on me personally, was the fact that graduation was delayed and I and my classmates had to wait an extra week to finish school!

Brian X
I was four when it happened, so I only remember that I did hear about it when it happened, but I have no direct memories.

My actual memory of it is a lot closer to my heart — my grandfather had set me up just about then with a subscription to National Geographic which is still maintained to this day, and the NatGeo article on Mount St. Helens is probably my first memory of what actually happened. (Yes, I learned to read early.) To this day, I most vividly remember being struck by two things: Harry R. Truman refusing to leave his Spirit Lake Lodge, foolishly convinced that the mountain wouldn’t kill him, and Reid Blackburn’s death in the blast, and the subsequent discovery of his ash-covered car and the bizarre, dust-damaged photos of the eruption that were salvaged from his camera.

NatGeo just published a 30-year retrospective. It seems a strange thing to be sentimental about, but as horrific as it is, that article is one of my most cherished memories from my childhood. Oddly enough, a year or two after the NatGeo article, I received a volcano book from a family member as a gift that had a picture of Mount St. Helens before the blast. At the time I thought it had to be another mountain because the one in the book was cone-shaped and pristine, not horseshoe-shaped and wasted… it was a few years before I understood the concept of publishing date.

Tsu Dho Nimh
I was living in Mexico – a country with high volcano awareness – and the initial media reaction made it sound like the entire Pacific Northwest had been annihilated by something the size of Krakatoa. Pity there was no Internet, because being able to check with the USGS and volcano labs would have put the kibosh on many of the rumors.

One of my cousins lives in Montana, in the path of the ash cloud, and he said it moved in like a slow thunderstorm, but slightly gritty. The wheat harvest that fall was superb.

John M.
I was living in Everett, WA (30 miles north of Seattle, ~150 miles north of Mt. St. Helens). I was sleeping against the south wall of the house and awoke to what sounded like two sonic booms. Once we learned what was going on, my girlfriend and I drove and hiked to the summit of Mt. Pilchuck from which we had a pretty good view of the plume. The second big eruption a month or two later was much more spectacular from the Seattle area (the plume rose a lot higher as I recall).


Mount St. Helens with the new crater on May 19, 1980. Image courtesy of the USGS/CVO.

Monika
I’ve been learning English at the time of the eruption that I could only see on TV. But for helping my English I had a subscription on NatGeo magazine with the help of a friend living in Canada (from Hungary it was impossible to subscribe in those years) so I met the eruption in the magazine with the big article. (You can find it in the archives.

Nick Carter
I was living in Richland, WA and except for the fact we had a 10 month old daughter would never have been up that early on a Sunday morning. We were futzing around in the kitchen, making breakfast, and I was looking out the East-facing window trying to decide if I needed to mow the lawn before our afternoon visitors arrived. There was a “Boom!” that I attributed to being a sonic boom, which are quite common in this high-desert area of Eastern Washington.

Some hours later I was out mowing our large lawn with an unpowered mower – my youthful bow to the need for hard physical exercise. I was finished with all but the front yard when I noticed ominous looking clouds coming from the West. It had been a beautiful, sunny, warm day, so I assumed we were in for a major thunderstorm and started running while mowing. A neighbor family came out on their porch and the man asked why I was working so hard on a Sunday. I replied that I wanted to finish before it started raining and he laughed and told me it was the ash cloud from Mount St. Helens.

Later, as the plume was directly overhead, I took some great pictures of the billowing cloud. We had between a sixteenth and an eighth inch of ash, and I collected some. It became quite gloomy that day, with the ash cloud overhead, and I seem to recall an abnormal quietness: e.g. no birds chirping, very little of the normal traffic.

Monday at work people had great stories: The friends who had been climbing Mt. Adams and were starting down the other side by the time of the eruptions so had missed it; a co-worker’s daughter who was driving between home and Pullman (Washington State University) in an area that received a lot of ash who pulled over to the side of the road and started crying inconsolably – she thought there had been a nuclear war.

For years afterward, on frequent trips between Richland and Seattle, 200 miles away, one could pick out places along the road where significant deposits of ash had fallen.


The plinian column of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Image courtesy of the USGS/CVO.

Rodger Wilson
First, I thank God for my parents who nurtured my interest in volcanoes since an early age, six to be exact! There wasn’t a volcanic area in the American west that we didn’t visit at least once before I turned into a terrible teen (…weekend and summer camping trips that my younger sister, who was definitely not into volcanoes, quietly
endured!,…Thank you Cindy!). At that age, just knowing that the white peaks on the western skyline were volcanoes was enough, but when Crandall and Mullineaux’s (USGS) hazard study on Rainier was issued in 1967, in which the authors stated that, “Mount Rainier has erupted as recently as 150 years ago, and will certainly erupt again.”, my young imagination became completely transfixed with the idea that I might someday witness a Cascade eruption (…imagine!,…right out my back
window!!!!…)!

I am not sure if it was the power of suggestion, that people became more aware of the mountain’s past, or the unrest was real but, beginning a few years later (late 1960s-early 1970s), reports of steam explosions, unusual glacial melt pits, clouds and rockfalls from the peak became frequent, adding some weight to Crandall and Mullineaux’s statement as well as continuing to feed my curiousity about volcanoes.

Four years later (I was starting to get a feel for geologic time by then!), Mount Baker provided another boost to my volcano education by becoming “my first active volcano”. Having to watch it slowly return to slumber over the next five years was tempered by the release of another Crandall/Mullineaux joint entitled, “Potential hazards from future eruptions of Mount Saint Helens, Washington.”. I think everyone’s familiar with their “…perhaps by the end of this century.” statement in the bulletin.

Well,…guess where my family spent every one of my birthdays after issuance of USGS Bulletin 1383-C (actually, we started camping at MSH after Crandell and Mullineaux’s preliminary findings were published in Science magazine in 1975). The upper Toutle River valley was amazing!

You could observe layer after layer of young lahar, pyroclastic flow and airfall deposits by just walking along the fresh-cut river banks. I still have samples of andesite and dacite I collected during those trips. More amazing was the size and density of Douglas fir, Western red cedar trees, the lush growth overall in the upper valley was something I’ll never forget. Visiting those areas after 18 May 1980 is
what (for me) caused the immensity of what happened to really sink-in.

I remember reading about the 4.1 earthquake in the newspaper the day after it happened, on Friday 22 March 1980. Mount Saint Helens was a frequent producer of earthquakes and, more often than not, if an earthquake in the state was reported felt, it occurred in SW Washington, “near Mount Saint Helens”. But, this earthquake was a little stronger than most, so my imagination ran wild over the weekend with thoughts of it being the first in a series of tremors that would signal eruptive activity at the volcano (little did I know that another M4 quake occurred Saturday evening and by late Sunday night,…the precursory sequence was in full swing!).

Imagine my elation upon reading the headline (not page 5D or some other niche reserved for volcano stories in those days!) stating “scientists concerned that Mount Saint Helens might be waking-up.”! As I said before, MSH frequently experienced earthquakes, but not swarms,…so, in my mind, there was no doubt about what was happening beneath the volcano,…and with Dwight Crandall’s and Donal
Mullineaux’s volcano track record,…what would happen!

Seismicity at the volcano was reported to have eased dramatically by Tuesday, 25 March, but Mullineaux was quick to point out that this wasn’t necessarily a “good” sign. He noted that eruptions elsewhere had sometimes followed marked
declines in swarm seismicity. Right again! I was in the front parking lot of
Eisenhower Senior High School on 27 March at 12:30 p.m. when a loud sonic boom-like detonation came out of the west! My suspicions were confirmed by radio announcements about a half an hour that MSH had indeed erupted for the first time in 123 years.

From the following weekend through 10 May 1980, I was parked either at the Camp Baker roadblock (Toutle River) or as far up the Cispus River Road (east side,…near Bear Meadow) as weather (not the volcano mind you!) would allow. I felt perfectly safe at both locations and believed I could easily “escape” if anything untoward happened. Yeah,…right!!!

Since I had spent all my money on weekend trips to the volcano from March 29th, through May 10th, without seeing much more than a few quick glimpses of the cone through a sloppy mixture of rain and snow (on the west side), slogging up a ridge through melting snow to gather a Mason jar of ash (on the east side), I stayed home on the weekend of May 18th.

On the morning of the 18th, I was laying-in, my mother and father were in the living room with their ritual cups of coffee and Sunday paper in hand when,…Ba-Boom! My dad immediately (jokingly!) responded with, “Mount Saint Helens just erupted!”. Looking back on it now,…he was taunting me! Anyhow,…after another half hour (9 am), we started hearing these long, rolling peals of thunder. Problem is,…this was May (kinda early for a thunderstorm in Central Washington) and the storm seemed to be coming from the west (here, thunderstorms typically approach from the south to southeast)! My father and I walked out our back patio which faces west to have a
look. All that was visible to the west was a dark haze, no mushroom cloud or anything suggesting something volcanic, but a soon an unusually high cirrus layer pushed rapidly eastward over us (I had no weather training at that time but I knew it was quite high in the atmosphere) At about the same time, the lower level haze was upon us and shortly thereafter the street lamps began to activate (not unusual
during a good thunderstorm). But soon, we began to hear something more unsettling, a light tick, tick, tick on the leaves of plants in my mothers garden. At first we thought wow!, static electricity, we need to go inside, but upon entering the house I got an idea about what else could produce that ticking sound! I ran out the front door and nearly slipped as I stepped out (in my bare feet) on the front sidewalk. I put my hand down flush with the sidewalk. When I brought it back up to
examine, it looked as though I had talcum powder or baking flour covering my palm! I was beyond ecstatic!!!

From that point (maybe 930 am) things began to happen at a much more rapid pace. The cloud shut down the eastern horizon, things went black,…and the thunder! The thunder was like I’ve never experience ever since! I attended Naval forecasting school in Mississippi and witnessed (daily) thunderstorms as well as two hurricanes,…not even close! The thunder on 18 May 1980 was incessant and so loud as to just come short of shattering windows (I’m not exaggerating!)! You could not see the lightning whatsoever but the thunder!!!! Visible mixed in with the sparkling ashfall (under the streetlights), were occasional spiral-shaped fibres of wood (as you see around campfires!) and pinecone scales! Imagine almost eight hours of that!,…in total darkness, with sand falling from the sky throughout! A volcanologist’s dream come true!!! My mom’s nerves and many others I’m sure were frazzled but I absorbed every second of it through the distinct 5:30 pm
sign-off blast (another sonic-boom-like double detonation!). Things quieted rapidly afterward. The next morning, we awoke to total silence,…not a bird, bug or other sound of anything living. Outdoors smelled like wet cement mixed with a slight hint of fir tree,…no sulphur smell whatsoever. In marked contrast to the day before,…eerily quiet.

I want to point out that,…yes I realize lives were lost and other lives were changed that day, maybe not for the better but,…that’s what volcanoes do! That’s why I study them intensely. I like to think that from each eruption studied, we glean something out that might limit future eruptions to perhaps being destructive but not deadly.


Ash on cars in Vancouver, Washington on May 25, 1980. Image courtesy of the USGS/CVO.

Alison A.
My husband and I traveled to Tacoma, WA with our two small girls for a day’s outing with friends and a barbecue: we arrived very early in the day, and as we were getting out of the infamous road cruiser known as a Pontiac station
wagon, we heard an explosive sort of sound which seemed to reverberate past
us very quickly. I said, “That’s odd, wonder what that was.” The next
guest arriving had been listening to their car radio, and we all clustered
around the host’s tiny TV set, watching the footage of the ash cloud. We
packed up the girls, and headed for home in North Seattle. The plume headed
east, fortunately for us, but the stories from residents of Moses Lake,
Ephrata, Walla Walla and all the ‘villes between are of a day turned to
night, and ash. Lots of ash.

Mike
Shortly after the May 18 1980 eruption my Dad hired a light plane and we flew over the devastated area. I remember being shocked at what I saw. Mountainside after mountainside of toppled trees all pointing away from the volcano. Vehicles crushed by the falling trees with bodies still inside. I love volcanoes but this was the stuff of nightmares. I could say more but I’m leaving for Costa Rica in a few hours.

Vern Hodgson
It was quite the event, I happened to have a camera pointed at the mountain when it erupted and captured sixteen dramatic photos of about sixty seconds of the event, then it was time to get out of Dodge, had I known what I know now I would have stayed there and enjoyed the whole experience.

Smitha
Can we post even if we weren’t alive for the eruption? I know it sounds odd, but as a 3rd-grader in 1990, I discovered Patricia Lauber’s children’s book on Mount St. Helens in our school library…and I was transfixed and enraptured instantly. How her words and the photographs described what happened completely blew my 8-year-old mind–I had never seen or come across anything like it before. I lost count of how many times I reread that book.

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens singlehandedly started my lifelong love for and fascination with volcanoes and geology. I’m now 28, and while I did not go on to become a geologist, I very seriously considered it, and sometimes I really regret not going down that path. I lived in Japan for two years and spent most of my vacation days traveling around the country to visit various volcanic sites. I do study geology on the side for fun.

My plans to visit MSH for the eruption’s 30th anniversary have just narrowly fallen through and I am heartbroken–what an incredible pilgrimage (and indeed, that is how I would describe a visit to MSH and the Cascades) it would have been.

Minda
On the date of Mt St Helens’ eruption I was a police/fire dispatcher for Benton County, Washington- the Tri-Cities. We had been on alert for the eruption for a long time, and knew we were in Condition Red. It was a quiet morning, and my day off- but I was up early as I had a weeklong seminar beginning Monday in Portland.

I not only heard a very long C-R-A-C-K, but I felt it too. I knew it wasn’t a sonic boom as it disappeared too quickly. I was considering calling dispatch, but we had been receiving hundreds of phone calls whenever the public got nervous, so I decided to continue dressing. No need to add to the problems my co-workers must be experiencing. There was no TV or radio on (I really was enjoying the quiet), and when I walked out into my kitchen, which faces west, I could not believe the dark sky coming in. It was filled with “boiling” clouds.

I woke my oldest son and asked him to please mow the yard as we were about to have a terrible storm, and he had promised to have it mowed before I left. In a couple of minutes he came back inside to tell me that there was something in the air which was making his skin burn…. It was the acidic ash!!!!

My youngest son was on a scouting campout at the Potholes, and he would not be seen again for four days! I left for Portland as scheduled, and amazingly, there was no ash on the Oregon side of the Columbia River! We stopped in Hood River where we could get a good look at St Helens.

Amazing, but we still have pockets of ash in our gardens to this day, 30 years later!

Joan-Marie
I have two strong memories relating to MtStH. When MSH blew I was in High School and entranced by rocks and geology, especially volcanoes. To my lasting distress my parents just didn’t see a good reason to hop in the camper and drive N. from Southern California to see what was happening up close. Although, it was not for lack of effort on my part.

However, they did decide to head North for our summer vacation. When we got into the zone in Washington, I was excited to see all the ash and the rivers. But what I really remember with glee is that everywhere we stopped near the eruption on I5 people were selling ash, and things made from ask. My mom, being the practical woman that she is, decided it was much cheaper to get our own baggy out and collect our own ash. So we did, from the same place where they were selling it. As I sit and type this I have a wonderfully Kitsch figurine sitting on my computer from MSH ash that same mom brought me from one of her more recent trips.

David Tucker
On the morning of May 18th, 1980, I was aboard my live-aboard sailboat in Bellingham, Washington, which is 170 miles (270 km) north of Mount Saint Helens. I heard three distinct loud booms. I thought someone’s propane tanks were blowing up aboard another boat, or maybe a chain of them. I walked up the dock, looking for a plume of smoke, but saw nothing. A friend later came down the docks, telling everyone he saw that the volcano had blown up. Friends in Seattle did not hear any sounds from the eruption. My mother, in Tacoma, Washington, had a view of the very summit portion of Mount Saint Helens from her upstairs window, as well as Rainier. After the eruption and collapse, she could no longer see Saint Helens, which really pissed her off. After I returned to University to get a Masters in Geology, studying volcanism, she never passed up any opportunity to complain about the impact on her view. Rainier wasn’t enough for her, I guess.

Robin
It was my 4th birthday and we were visiting family in Keremeos, BC, just north of the WA border. I clearly remember ash falling from the sky, and my Mom picking ash off the cake. Strangely enough, my Uncle in Clinton, BC, (WAY north of the border) heard the explosion, but we were relatively close and didn’t hear anything.

When I was 6 I saw a documentary at school about MSH and how Harry Truman wouldn’t leave his lodge, and his sister dropped a wreath for him from a chopper. For years after I was terrified of volcanoes, and couldn’t sleep facing my bedroom window – I was convinced that a volcano was going to grow up through our fields!

I too have a piece of MSH glass, blown into an egg shape. It looks like the mountain is erupting inside it.

My husband and I finally made the trip to MSH in August 2008, enduring 40C temps and gale force winds blowing pumice to see the incredible mountain that I’ve felt such a connection to all these years. She was even more beautiful than I imagined. Huge, magnificent and terrifying.

Krissy
I was 9 when Mt St Helens erupted on May 18th 1980. We lived very close to the Mountain, on the South side. (Battle Ground, WA) I remember hiking on the Mountain and going to Spirit Lake before the eruption. May 18th I was at church with my family, as we were walking out of church we noticed the mountain erupting and the sky filled with billowing clouds. I do not remember anyone being afraid. Everyone just stared at the Mountain and the sky. We did not hear a sound or get any ash! Thankfully the blast went North which is mostly National Forest because the South side of the Mountain is very populated.

I just went to Mt St Helens again 2 Years ago and hiked up it with my children. It is SO Amazing!! Everything is growing back and it is just so so beautiful. The Mountain was steaming when we were on it, but seemed normal to me. Alot of people think it sounds scary to go there even now, but it is one of the most beautiful places ever!

Mike M.
In the Spring of 1980 I was an undergrad at the University of Washington (studying geology), and when the volcano started to wake up it was certainly a topic of much conversation in classes. I spent nearly each weekend from the initial pop to the eventual, catastrophic lateral blast at the mountain in one capacity or another. Sometimes it was just volcano-geeks watching from where we could, but we did have a few weekends in an official capacity assisting the USGS, which was definitely undermanned for something of this scale, way back then. My family and friends were used to me being gone from Friday afternoon to Sunday night – they knew where I was!

On the Saturday night before the big blast, I was on the south side of the mountain near the town of Cougar – it had just become too dangerous for non-USGS employees to be on the north side with the ominous bulge getting bigger every day. Each weekend as it grew, you could sense a growing fear in the USGS team. At 8:30PM (without having told most friends and any of my family), I left with a friend to drive across the mountains to Eastern Washington to go river rafting on the Wenatchee River. We got into the campsite our friends had reserved some time well after midnight and hit the sack.

The next morning, for some unknown reason, I looked at my watch as I awoke. It was 8:32 AM. We packed up the camp, and headed down into town where our raft was scheduled to start at 11 AM. It was a very warm morning, and we expected it to be quite hot by the time we were to have finished up at 4PM or so. We pushed off on time, and were about an hour into the trip when from the south, it looked like a tremendous thunderstorm was coming over us. The Wenatchee River is in a low canyon at this point and we were not able to see much beyond the mountains that lined the river’s course. As the thunderstorm overtook us, it became obvious that this was something completely different. The air smelled of sulfur, and fine ash began to fall – and yet, I did not put 2 and 2 together, because we were some 150 miles north-northeast of the mountain I had stood upon 24 hours earlier. There could be no way that any ash cloud could make it that far!

Some ways down the river, a fisherman on the bank told us that the mountain had exploded, and that everything was being shut down. It was almost completely dark by the time that we got to the river pullout where our cars were parked. We were dirty and grimy from ashfall mixed with riverspray. By then, the roads were all closed, and the phones were all down, and I was not able to contact my family until the late next day (they were sure that I was dead since they hadn’t heard from me). I wasn’t able to get home until the Tuesday night after it happened.

It may have been 30 years ago, but in some ways, it seems just like yesterday!

Maggie
I was 20.

I’m Canadian and we used to go to Kalispell, Montana for “Canada Days” every year on the May long weekend (big party for all university age people!)

We awoke in the morning to tents covered in ash – it was snowing! Cars were stalled, everything had a blanket of ash on it. It cut short the weekend but it was totally cool driving back to Alberta and watching the ash slowly peter out as we got closer to home.

I became an earth scientist and I teach physical geography and geomorph… coincidence? Perhaps not… maybe it influenced me! All I know is that when the mountain threatened to go again a few years ago my husband and I quickly hauled out a map to see how long it would take to get down there (alas, too long and too far to be told we had to stay 14 miles away at the perimeter they had set up…)


Mount St. Helens erupting in May 1980.

Dana H.
I was five years old when Mount St. Helens erupted. I’d thought until then volcanoes didn’t erupt anymore, so it was a bit of a shock to see it explode on the news. Something in my young mind clicked instantly with the volcano. It looked like it hurt, so I drew it a get-well card. Such is the mindset of small children. My neighbors visited soon afterward, bearing a vial of ash. Exotic stuff for an Arizona girl.

A few years later, one of my favorite children’s book authors, Marian T. Place, wrote a book called Mount St. Helens: A Sleeping Volcano Awakes. I got to know people like geologist David Johnston, who died on Coldwater Ridge. His last words, picked up by a ham radio operator, still give me shivers: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” And then he was gone. Powerful stuff, especially when you live in volcano country.

In 2007, I stood on Coldwater Ridge and gazed into St. Helens’s caldera, remembering David Johnston. I’d expected to be afraid, but I felt no fear, just excitement, awe and a profound gratitude that geologists like David risk and sometimes give their lives so that we can understand the behavior of volcanoes. Anyone who thinks volcano monitoring isn’t important just needs to visit the monument to the dead. It would have been a far larger monument without those geologists keeping watch.

Because of Mount St. Helens and the geologists who study her, I could better understand my own backyard volcano, the San Francisco Peaks. The geological jury is still out on whether the enormous gouge in its profile was caused by glaciers or a lateral eruption like St. Helens’. I know what side I come down on. When I stood in a meadow created by a lahar from the Peaks and looked into that gulf, I froze: it looked almost precisely like St. Helens, only bigger.

Mount St. Helens was my first introduction to the immense power and stark beauty of volcanic eruptions. She’ll be with me for the rest of my life.

Garry Hayes
I was graduating from Pomona College on the very morning the volcano collapsed and exploded. We’ve referred to our graduating class as the St. Helenians to this day. They sent out oven mitts(!) with a St. Helens motif for our 30th class anniversary. I am thinking (possibly in the apocryphal sense) that the daughter of one of the Cascade Volcano Observatory geologists was graduating with the same class, so he was in the audience at Pomona instead of being in Washington seeing it happen. I wanted to go see the volcano so badly, and it was about 18 years before I got up there to see it in person, but I’ve been there 5 or 6 times since.

John Fleck
I was a college student in Walla Walla, Wash., and was working the night shift on a local commercial radio station.

We’d been watching news stories on the volcano for weeks. But this was not the age of 24-7 news, so we didn’t realize it had erupted that day until we were standing in our front yard looking at the mammoth storm clouds moving in from the west. They weren’t storm clouds, our neighbor came over and explained.

The radio was a computer-run adult contemporary music station, so normally my job was just to change the tapes and do the occasional local news update. But I shifted into news mode that night, and kept the station on the air after midnight to keep offering news updates to our listeners. It’s probably a stretch to say that’s the moment I got the news bug, but it’s one of them, and it turned into a career for me.

Oh, and Walla Walla was in a sort of hole in the weather pattern, and saw very little ash fall.

Brian Owens
I grew up in Anacortes, WA, about 75 miles north of Seattle. I remember the initial report on the news around March 24th or so, saying that there had been a lot of earthquakes at St. Helens, and that it might erupt. We had all been excited by increased steaming at Mt. Baker a few years earlier, but that did not amount to anything.

After the first eruption on the 27th, it became topic #1 in the northwest. I remember seeing interviews with David Johnston, who seemed really excited to be a part of it, and enjoyed educating the public about what might happen. Looking back, I think it was good to have someone like him who did such a nice job of educating the public in a way that we could understand.

I remember a lot of speculation over the next 2 months. KING TV in Seattle had a young meteorologist/science reporter by the name of Jeff Renner, who they stationed near the mountain in a trailer, and he gave frequent live reports, sometimes accompanied by an earthquake. Today Renner is a Seattle institution, and is the chief meteorologist at KING TV. Many people thought that nothing big would happen, and they were frustrated that the “red zone” around the mountain was as big as it was (too small, as it turned out).

I remember there was speculation that the “new moon” or perhaps it was a “full moon” on May 21st could be enough to trigger the eruption. On the morning of the 18th, I was lying in bed, awake, a little before 9AM when I heard several very loud, rumbling “BOOM!!!”s. My mom thought that my dad had fallen against our large windows from our deck, since it did shake the house and windows. My dad thought they were blasting logs across the water on Whidbey Island. I thought that Mt. St. Helens had erupted, and ran to the tv and radio, constantly looking and listening for any word. No internet back then, and it took a little while. The first report was about 15 minutes later, saying “Something is happening at Mt. St. Helens”. We had to go to Seattle that day to the UW for a function for my sister, and it seemed that people in Seattle did not hear the eruption, even though they were a lot closer to us. I later heard that the sound of the eruption went on an upward angle, bounced off the upper atmosphere, and back down again, skipping over areas closer. In fact, I think people very near the mountain heard little at all.

Passerby
I was living in Tennessee, a twenty-something attending classes as a chemistry and math major undergraduate. Mt St Helen’s ash had given the Deep South a cooler than normal summer and fall in 1981.

The ash cloud left its calling card in a most unusual winter that year. Come January 1982, the Tennessee Valley and much of the Deep South would feel the impact of the worst ice storm in many decades, accompanied by near record frigid temperatures and in some areas, snow as well. The accumulated 5 inches of ice insulated by snow, would persist to paralyze our area for nearly a month from a deceptive storm that hit January 19th, a day that had been forecast for warm conditions (50 degrees) and gentle rain.

The cold that came in on the heels of that rain that night formed a thick ice sheath that caused large power outages as transmission lines sagged and snapped, rendered roads nearly impassible due to a lack of snow removal equipment, and brought governments, businesses, and public school and universities to a grinding halt from forced absenteeism.

Since this storm crept in unannounced, the local grocery stores were not immediately stripped bare of necessitities, as was usually the case when inclement weather struck.

The piney woods where I lived developed a peculiar flat-topped profile that would persist for years, as high winds that accompanied the ice storm snapped off frozen tree tops, reducing the pine barren ecosystems to a uniform height for many miles.

Main roads were reduced to primitive deep-rutted tracks. In New Orleans, fabled slow-growing and tall century old Royal Palms that lined stately main thoroughfares in the oldest part of the city died en masse, and were reported to be irreplaceable.

Cars on secondary roads remained stuck fast for as long as two weeks, as motorists trekked resolutely to work in-town, or to makeshift bus stops in rural locations, waiting to be picked up twice each day by the only public transportation equipped with tire chains that were an absolute necessity for the hilly region – the Grey Hound Bus line.

It was a memorable winter, one of two unusually cold seasons to occur in just a few years, thanks to Mt St Helens and later, El Chichon.


Mount St. Helens, moments after the landslide that triggered the May 18, 1980 eruption.

Connie
It was a beautiful Sunday morning. I was standing at Waterfront Park in Portland along the Willamette River and could see Mt. St. Helens erupt. It looked like an atom bomb but it wasn’t. It was surreal.

On another day, I saw it erupt while standing on Broadway in front of Nordstroms. By then, it seemed like a normal occurance.

The strangest part was the ash. We all wore face masks so we didn’t breath in the ash (glass particles) and used water to wash off the ash from the car windows so the ash did not scratch the glass.

One Thursday night, I left work and drove home in falling ash that was like snow. I could not see 15 feet ahead of my car lights. Very odd.

Helena
I was ~7 years old when Mt. St. Helens erupted, so, despite growing up in Tacoma, WA, I wasn’t at St. Helens until about 1990. My first memory of Mt. St. Helens (and one of my earliest memories) is a hazy one of Spirit Lake, still covered with downed trees and ash. After that time, we didn’t go there for many years. During that time, however, my mother wrote a story about our trip – or, rather, the trip our teddy bears snuck from our car to take around the devastation zone. It was a childhood favorite.

My father was working as a photographer at the time, and his boss tried to convince him to join a trip into the evacuated zone on May 18th. My dad wasn’t really keen on the idea, and backed out – luckily for me and my siblings, who were all born afterward!

Comments

  1. #1 Chris, Reykjavik
    May 18, 2010

    Thanks for this posting. A lot of very interesting photos are shown today in the Big Picture Blog of the Boston Globe: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/05/mount_st_helens_30_years_ago.html

  2. #2 Chris, Reykjavik
    May 18, 2010

    One more link: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=43999
    Satellite images at the NASA Earth Observatory taken 1980 before and after the eruption and 2009.

  3. #3 maria royse
    May 18, 2010

    I was 11 yrs.old and in the store with mom,sister,and brothers when she blew.I was standing by the window and there it happened.We could here the explosion.But two days before the mountain exploded,my and her friend went for a walk around Lake Sak Jawia.The teachers asked my friends and I about if we knew what caused the earthquake, we all said that it was our moms that made the earthquake.I was inside a grocery storewhen Mount Saint Helens blew her top off on May 18,1980.I thought it was the coollest thing to see a mountain blow.I even yelled hey look the mountain is blowing.Back then Ican see how it was neat.Mother Nature is a wonderful thing and she can also be very threating.I am now 41 yrs. old.

  4. #4 Jon
    May 18, 2010

    I love the movement of the raft of trees floating in Spirit Lake in those NASA photo. They move from end to the other, then to one side, then extend down up again with a tail….

  5. #5 Paolo
    May 18, 2010

    Great stories. And now for a really silly question. Would you have survived on the southern flank of the mountain? I did not see any pyroclastic flow heading south in any photo so far. So I’m tempted to think that the southern flank (beside some quake) was more or less safe. Feel free to laugh at me.

  6. #6 dhogaza
    May 18, 2010

    Well, my old software company always had a huge open house on the “middle friday of May” (ten years in a row, good weather, quite a trick for Portland, Oregon). An acquaintance, the engineer for KBOO radio, was also an avid climber with connections to the geology department at PSU. He was climbing the mountain every couple of weeks, illegally, taking photographs and bringing down rock samples. Would drive to a campground near the closed area, then load up with climbing gear and ride his bike as far up as logging roads would take him, then hump his stuff the rest of the way to the summit.

    He showed slides of the mountain and crater that friday evening, then left that night to sneak in for a morning climb, planning to leave Sunday morning.

    He and a buddy camped up on a ridge, outside the closed area, after climbing it Saturday, and that saved them. People died at lower elevation on either side of the ridge. They stopped long enough for a quick snapshot – “hi mom (leaning on ice ax), look at that mountain behind me, with its pillar of ash!” – then blew out of there, flooring the pick-up.

    As for me, my wife and I headed up to Mt. Tabor park here in SE Portland, and with a couple of hundred other people sat on the summit and watched the eruption for hours. Wondering if our acquaintance had made it out (this was before cell phones, kiddies). Thirty years later, trees block the view to the north from the top of Mt Tabor, but back then you could see it just fine. Ironically, Mt. Tabor itself has a small cinder cone which has been bulldozed in half so you can see the internal structure (it’s perhaps 20 feet high and 50 feet in diameter).

    It was a day I’ll never forget, of course. It was awesome. My folks were living east of the mountain, in Yakima, Washington, and they got several inches of ash …

  7. #7 Les Hazelton
    May 18, 2010

    I was camping with friends John Mlachnik and Bruce Johnson that day 200 miles to the north. Having a fine weekend mountain air outing as we would often do – taking advantage of Seattle’s grand backyards. While brewing our Sunday morning coffee a little after 8:30 we were startled by the sound of a terrific explosion. Seconds later the echo traversed a mountain range far above and behind our campsite! The sound lasted maybe 5 seconds each time with maybe 5 seconds in between. That’s how I remember it. A cracking thundering noise that trailed off. We decided we had perched on an artillery range and honked the VW beetle horn, hollering our surrender to whomever. It would be interesting today to learn about others in the vicinity who also heard it, because as I recall there were closer areas farther south that heard nothing. In those dramatic moments Mt St Helens’ lost 1200 feet of elevation. Gone! Well… re-distributed I suppose. Let’s see…for perspective Duluth, MN (where I live) has ancient worn volcanic bluffs that sit about 600′ above Lake Superior… Can’t fathom the obliteration of so much mountain mass! Someone somewhere has a last photo snapped of the snow-capped peak reflecting on the still clear water of Spirit Lake as it had always been in modern memory. The lake was rearranged during the violence, you could say. It was displaced 800 feet up the mountain side, had it’s outlet blocked, then resettled 200 feet higher than it had been and much shallower. Returning home to Seattle that afternoon we marveled at what we thought were gigantic thunderheads on the southern horizon on an otherwise perfectly cloudless day. About then we turned the car radio on and learned the truth! Everyone had known it was coming. We all had waited months and months. Special editions of the Seattle-Post-Intelligencer were no-doubt laid out in preparation, just waiting for the photos and stories. How could we be expected to sustain the appropriate level of excitement with the ceaseless news updates droning on about seismic activity and daily accounts of the growing bulge? We just got a little complacent. Anyway, I suggest we all get on pins and needles and stay there concerning the rest of the Pacific NW active volcanoes not to mention the Yellowstone Caldera! Then we won’t be so startled.

  8. #8 David
    May 18, 2010

    wow thats the longets blog post i have evere seen in my life

  9. #9 Debby
    May 19, 2010

    I was sleeping in the Sunday morning of May 18, 1980. I was awakened by a deep BOOM! in Bothell, Washington. I knew immediately it was St. Helens. I figured she was going to go big, starting with a nuee ardente, by the way she was swelling at 4′ a day. When I got up, my usband was looking out the front door, as were all of our neighbors, up and down the cul de sac. My father, then an airline pilot, was just taking off from Sea Tac when she went up, and got to see the ascending column.

  10. #10 Thomas Nygreen
    May 20, 2010

    I was born four years after the eruption, but my father’s old 1981 National Geographic issue on St. Helens always fascinated me. It was the photos by Robert Landsberg that struck me the most, and they are forever imprinted in my head. There are three kinds of people in this world: those who would flee helplessly from an oncoming pyroclastic flow, those who would be unable to react at all, and those who would keep taking pictures of it, wind back the film, and then use their body to shield the camera and film from the heat.

  11. #11 amy
    June 15, 2010

    i love these pic……………..NOT

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    November 3, 2010

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  15. #15 Ria Kong
    November 23, 2010

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