Memories of Mount St. Helens on the 30th Anniversary (1980-2010): Part 1

May 18, 2010 marks the 30th anniversary of the dramatic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. Now, rather than recount the event when the USGS and the Cascade Volcano Observatory have done such an excellent job, I turn it over to all the Eruptions readers and their memories of the eruption.

Now, as I've mentioned, I was all of three years old when St. Helens erupted in 1980, so I have no distinct memories of the eruption. My mother has mentioned that she watched the TV coverage with me and my sister, who had been born a two months earlier. However, the real memories of St. Helens I have come later, when I was maybe 9-10 and I received a pack of posters - mostly science-related - and the famous sequence of the eruption was one of them. I don't know how much time I spent of the next, well, many years staring at the poster, trying to figure out the exact sequence of events. Needless to say, when I finally read about the eruption, it seemed very familiar!

So, without further ado, I turn it over to all of you. Thank you to everyone for submitting your recollections of the eruption! This is Part 1 of 2 (you all have a lot to say), so check in tomorrow for Part 2.


Mount St. Helens erupting in 1980. Image courtesy of the USGS/CVO.

I lived in Washington state north of Seattle near a town called Mt. Vernon. As a hiker I had often been in the area of St Helens and camped. Prior to the main eruption the mountain had 'warmed up' for a time. I have some photos of this while the mountain was spewing but still mostly intact.

The Thursday before the eruption I had traveled from my home with intentions of camping north of the mountain and taking more photos. The weather turned cloudy so I stayed with some friends in Seattle, thinking photos might not work out.- We went on a bender that Friday night thus Saturday morning I was feeling a bit hung-over. The weather had not cleared and I then decided to bag it and head for home.

Sunday morning at about 9 AM a knock on my door and my neighbor exclaiming "Did you Hear IT? St Helens blew up!" After watching the TV I discovered I had missed the photos and sight of my life in not continuing my trip. The day had dawned remarkably clear at that too.

John H. McDonald
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Delaware

I was an undergrad at the University of Washington in spring 1980. Mt. St. Helens had been emitting steam and small amounts of ash for a few weeks, so some friends and I from the dorm decided to head down there to see it. Our floor's resident assistant made it an official dorm activity, checked out a university van, and we drove down there one morning. We drove up the Spirit Lake highway, but found that when we got to the roadblock marking the restricted "Red Zone," our view of the mountain was partially obscured. We turned off the main highway onto a logging road and found another logging road that paralleled the main highway but wasn't blocked. We were able to get a couple miles closer to the mountain, and had an excellent view of Mt. St. Helens with a wisp of steam coming from its top and a dusting of gray ash on its snow-covered sides. We spent the day picnicking, hiking around, and taking lots of pictures.

There had been no one at the roadblock area when we drove up in the morning, but by the time we got back in the afternoon, there were lots of other volcano tourists there. Parked cars blocked our way from the logging road back to the main highway. We pulled up, not knowing what to do, when a pot- bellied, mirror-shades-wearing, state trooper started to swagger over to our van. We were sure we were in big trouble--we'd snuck into the Red Zone and were facing huge fines! Maybe jail time! An arrest record that would keep us from ever getting a good job!

The 20-year-old resident assistant, who looked several years younger, nervously rolled down the driver's window, prepared for the worst. The state trooper got to the side of the van, looked down to where it said "University of Washington--For OFFICIAL Use Only", and said "We'll get these cars moved out of your way in just a second." He went off to boss around some mere tourists, getting them to move their completely unofficial cars, and we drove back to Seattle.

That was May 17. At 8:28 the next morning, the place we'd had our picnic, and the roadblock on the Spirit Lake highway, were buried under a rapidly moving wall of mud, ash, and logs.

I was 30 so I remember quite a bit. :-) It was a Sunday and it blew big time. I remember the two weeks before it happened they were trying to get people out of there and having a hard time doing it. Old Harry Truman refused to leave. He was 83 and I guess he figured he would not be able to start over if he lost his cabin and the beautiful Spirit Lake he lived on. He loved "his" mountain and "his" lake and in a way, I don't blame him for going with the mountain he loved. If he had been 23, that would have been a different story.

I was taking electron microscopy at the time and was there ever a lot of buzz at school over that. I had a shirt that I got from Mt. Lassen that I had worn the week before and it was in the wash or I would have worn it the day after. It said "Go Climb A Volcano." LOL I should have worn it anyway. I did a few days later, but it didn't have the impact it would have if I had worn it on that Monday.

I was very sorry for the loss of the geologist (was it Johnson) who thought he was far enough away to be safe. It was a great loss for the geological community. There were others that thought they were far enough away also and some did not make it. One couple did manage to get out and they watched as the side of the mountain slid down and then the blast. They have said it was as frightening as it could get.

Later that year, a friend of mine and I went to D.C. and the day we went to the National Art Gallery, I wore that shirt. One of the guards took a look at that and read it and just shook his head. "Go climb a volcano," he said with a bit of "huh?!" in his voice. He was not for that at all. I told him I had been on Lassen and he wasn't for that, either. It was a bit comical for us.

As I have watched the films over the years, it almost seems like it was yesterday and yet soooo long ago. My brother was in the auto parts business at the time (he took over from Dad, sort of) and they could not get any air filters. They were all going up to Washington, Oregon and any place else where the ash was. I remember seeing places that looked like night. Ash was everywhere and went as far as western Montana.

At the time, I thought about the power of a volcano and how it can disrupt everything and the lives lost. I think that was the worst part of it for me was the loss of life. I think sometimes we people just have to challenge nature and take too much risk. I observed that many of the people that were camping in the area seemed to think it was not going to blow or didn't realize how powerful it was going to be. I remember seeing the pictures and films of the lahar and how devastating that was to the environment. I remember the trees blasted over like matchsticks and the rock that was blasted out all over the landscape. The Tuttle River and Spirit Lake disappeared. The river has come back in a way, but the lake is gone.

Another thing that has been found in the area is the beginning of fossilization. You would think it would take thousands of years, but it has begun in less than 30 years. That is amazing. Flowers are blooming, and things are beginning to come back, but it will never be the same again. Yet, even with the devastation, there is a certain beauty there and it is an interesting place to visit and someday I hope to be able to see it in person.

It was scary, it was awesome, it was the kind of event that makes you think of what we are here for and how insignificant we can be compared to such a force as a volcano. I know we have gained a lot of knowledge by studying the films, the effects, the composition of the blast materials, and how far reaching a volcano can affect people, our way of life, and the environment.

It is almost like a dream and as if it never happened. It did and it could again. That is what is hard for us to remember. It can happen again.

Mount St. Helens, 1980. Image courtesy of the USGS/CVO.

Robert Somerville
I was living on acreage in the lower mainland of B.C. (Maple Ridge). I was woken up by the sound, which was apparently refracted by an atmospheric inversion from St. Helens to B.C. I was reading somewhere that the sound was the noise of the crypto-dome hitting Spirit Lake. Several of my working buddies also heard it. I thought somebody was blasting stumps not too far away.

GT McCoy
I was living in the Richland WA Area at the time, we didn't get hit much by the ashcloud, but it looked like the scene out of De Mille's "Ten Commandments". I had just flew a USGS Mission from Longview WA the day previous, and was not liking what the Goat Rocks looked like - obvious deformation.

One of the most impressive sights I remember was the Palouse prairie of Eastern Washington looking like the surface of the Moon (hmmm.) One of my clients was a rancher who said "All in all this is good for the land,it's the reason this country is so fertile.-just add water."

Chuck Clancy
Well, I have many memories, I live in Tacoma, WA which is about a 2 hour drive from the mountain, once it became active again, I used to drive down every weekend to watch this geologic wonder, I would drag one of my brothers, or my grandparents with me. One time, my whole family went to cougar and watched. There were thousands of people there, there food carts set up, people selling t-shirts and other memorabilia, helicopter rides, you name it. I always watched the news, and read the paper about it, I was so into it. On the Day of the "Big One" my whole family was at my Mom's, and we were glued to the action on the TV, we went outside and could see the towering Plume, and we were well over 100 miles away. I have taken my own family to Johnston Ridge several times, and we were even there during the last dome building phase when they evacuated the visitors center when the earthquake activity really picked. Now, I'm waiting for renewed signs of life

David Warman
Brief. A year later I and a friend camped at the only site we could find open on the North side. Even there we were on top of a few inches of ash. Took over a year before the last traces of it left my camping gear.

I was at a Boy Scout camp somewhere east of Yakima. We heard 'thunder' that morning, and the scoutmasters started rounding people up to leave camp (I believe we were meant to leave that day anyway). As we were milling around the buses getting ready to leave, ash started coming down. I remember being fascinated and holding out my hand to let it catch the ash. The scoutmaster with us insisted that it was just 'snow'. I think that I questioned this, and he insisted that it was 'snow' and that we needed to get on the bus. I realize now that he was just losing his shit, and was panicking and trying to get his scouts on the bus. But at the time, I don't think I'd ever heard such a blatant contrary to obvious fact lie in my life, that wasn't some kind of joke. I was actually furious most of the way home and I quit the scouts the next week, (something that had probably been building anyway, as I also quit the church at about the same time). I absolutely cannot stand being lied to, for any reason, which makes science a decent fit for me, but makes reading the news an ordeal.

My folks were living in Bellevue, WA, Dad teaching at UW. My mother said that she was idly swimming in the lake and realized suddenly what she was seeing to the south...beat all records in getting back to the house. A friend was some long time later at work in the Palouse and was affected by the ash.

I was 15 and living in a suburb of Seattle in 1980. My father was a geologist so Mt St Helens was a frequent subject of conversation in our house. We speculated about when and if an eruption might occur and what it might look like. I remember being concerned about the bulge on the north side of St Helens. But we never thought the side of the mountain would slide off and it would explode sideways. Our worst case scenario looked more like Crater Lake/Mt Mazama with the blast going straight up.

I remember the logging companies and residents clamoring for access to the red zone prior to the eruption. They were certain the government was over-reacting to the danger. (That sure sounds familiar!) The day before the eruption some of the residents were allowed back in to collect their belongings.

On May 18 my family and I went canoing early in the morning and didn't hear about the eruption until we got home. Thereafter, we were glued to our TV for days watching the eruption, ash fall and flooding. Our house only got a very light dusting of ash a few weeks later.

I remember Harry Truman, who refused to leave his home on Spirit Lake and died in the eruption. And the very tacky "Harry Truman Slide for Life" fund raiser some seniors at my High School did shortly after the eruption.

I remember David Johnston, the vulcanologist who died while monitoring the eruption. "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" were his last words. He couldn't save himself, but he and the other USGS scientists probably saved thousands of others by insisting on closing the red zone around the mountain.

I remember apple farmers in Eastern Washington who were worried that the ash would destroy their crops. They had a bumper harvest that fall. Volcanic ash sure is fertile stuff!

In 1983 I visited Mt St Helens. The broken and twisted debris from a bridge on the Toutle River was even more impressive up close. The blast zone was awe inspiring. But I think the most impressive thing is how quickly life returned to the blast zone. On the north side of the Toutle River where I-5 crosses the river there is a man-made hill. It is made of Mt St Helens ash. Over the years the hill has gone from barren to green and lush. There are good sized trees growing on it now. If you didn't know what it was you wouldn't even look twice at that little hill. I look at it every time I drive past and marvel at the thin veneer of living green that hides the dead gray ash.

A few years ago I found "The 1980 Eruptions of Mount St. Helens, Washington, Geological Survey Professional Paper 1250", in a used book store for dirt cheap. The geologic map tucked in the back is lovely. It even shows the directions the fallen trees point.

Wow, I guess I remember a lot about Mt St Helens. It was certainly an amazing sight.

I was eleven when the volcano erupted. In Britain, where I am from, there is a children's news program on the BBC called Newsround. They had the most fantastic footage of the bulge, the landslide and the eruption afterwards. It was the most awe-inspiring thing I have ever seen. I remember that the ash even made it as far as England even though it was a fine dusting, when it rained you could see it on all the cars. A couple of years later, we studied volcanoes and earthquakes at school in geography. We went and watched the footage of the volcano again and were told to do a project on it. As you can imagine, I got an A for my assignment and have wanted to be a volcanologist ever since. In July 2009 with my family and nine year old daughter who is also a volcano fanatic, we spent our vacation in WA and the very first day we had to go to the volcano and the observatory. It was a 29 year dream
come true for me and a two year dream for my daughter. I hope they do something special to remember the 30th anniversary. I need to go back. I am not a volcanologist however, something I would still like to be.

Jacob Lowenstern
I was in high school in Virginia, and don't really remember a whole lot about the eruption other than that I watched the news with great interest.

Doug Mcl
I had just started working for Boeing in Kent a few months earlier. That day of the eruption I was hiking with my soon-to-be-wife on Granite Mountain near Snoqualmie Pass. We hadn't heard about the eruption, but noticed how dirty brown the sky became towards the east as the day progressed. My friend Steve was climbing on Mt. Adams and as the ash column rose up in the sky the air became so charged that their metal ice axes began to hum and spark. Days spent glued to the TV watching scenes of the lahar, mudflow, rescues. No widespread internet with live streaming then, you had to wait for the evening news shows. Weeks earlier, the debate on whether the reopen the area for recreation got people very excited, not unlike the recent "let us fly again" discussion in Europe. Then when the blast came and so many people were killed, some started accusing the state authorities of being lax by not forcibly evacuating people. Up in Seattle we were able to collect a bit of fine pumice from our porch after one of the subsequent eruptions, but never more than that. It launched a lifetime interest in eruptions for me. I still regret not having climbed St. Helens to its pre-eruption summit, but if Baker, Rainier or Glacier peak loose their tops I'll be able to say "I knew her when she was taller". Mt Adams seemed too long a drive back then and now my poor lungs limit my climbing to only flat low elevation mountains.

Glrnn Gouldey
My company transferred me from NJ to Beaverton, Oregon in early May of 1980 and I spent all my free hours as close to Mt St Helen's as possible as I wanted to photograph the eruption. There was continued coverage of the mountain bulging the days preceding the eruption so there was a good idea it would erupt soon and most probably from the area that was bulging. I was in a hotel off I5 just south of the
Washington boarder when the volcano erupted Sunday morning May 18. I rushed up I5 and photographed the eruption near Kalama, Wa. For a short period the ash was in a perfect mushroom cloud, which I photographed before the jet stream, started pushing it east toward Yakima. I went further up I5 in Washington State photographing wherever there was a good view. I spent the day traveling all around the west side of Mt St Helens. When I went to head back south I found myself trapped north of the Tuttle River. So much material had accumulated into Spirit Lake and down the rivers the I5 crossing was closed to traffic as the rivers had taken out the smaller bridges just east of I5. Mt St Helens shot another large ash cloud around June 20, which went more southwest and gave us a covering of ash in the Portland metro area. People were instructed to wear surgical masks until it settled days later. Another ash cloud occurred in July but neither were the power of the May 18 eruption. I spent most of the summer weekends of 1980 around and in the Red Zone photographing and collecting ash and other samples.

Toutle River near I-5, filled with debris from the 1980 eruptions. Image courtesy of the USGS/CVO.

I was living in Virginia, a freshman in college. My best friend from HS went to the University of Washington. All I wanted was a vial of ash. But no, he gave it to a hot chick he met in a bar outside Springfield, Illinois. I'm still pissed.

Darin Speed
I was camping near Ellensburg Washington on May 18th 1980. We were approximately 80 miles down wind.
We had spent the most of the night taking Astrophotos with our telescopes.I was awakened from a sound sleep at 8:32 by two very loud booms. I thought they were either sonic booms (common in the mountains near the Yakima Firing Range or thunder.
I ruled out thunder because of the perfectly blue skies.
I went back to sleep for a while. At about 10:30 I woke back up to the sound of something sliding down the side of the tent.
I opened the tent door and looked out into twilight and it was raining dirt! Actually sand.
I knew instantly that we were in trouble and had better get out of the mountains.
We packed up the telescopes (Still has ash in the case etc.) and jumped into my friends Pinto wagon.
In the half hour it took to pack up it got dark as night out.
Being the best "snow" driver I then drove the 20 miles back to town.
It was pitch black in town at 12:30 on a clear day.
The ash was very slippery like snow and was like driving at night in a snow storm.
We made it back to I90 to find it closed from Spokane to Cle Elum (something that has never happened).
The state patrolmen said that the highway was closed and we would have to stay at the truck stop.
Instead of being trapped at the truck stop there we waited until the patrolman was busy and snuck out of the truck stop and slowly drove up the old highway.
The going was very slow about 10 miles per hour.
I had to stop every time a car came in the opposite direction and wait for the ash to settle.
After about 2 hours we made it the 20 miles to the road block near Cle Elum.
The state patrolman said we were lucky we were the only car that had come out of the ash zone.
Only perseverance and knowledge of the local roads made this possible,
I also wasn't sure if my Calculus professor would believe me if I missed my Calculus test.
Once out of the ash zone we drove home at the speed limit in the haze of the ash.
My mom was not so lucky she was in Ritzville Wa (Gritsville) than was trapped for 4 days at grade school due to the foot of ash they received.
I still see ash on the ground near Ellensburg and think of that most interesting day.
Being an amateur Geologist I feel fortunate to have experienced this once in lifetime eruption.

Mike Matney
I was 14 at the time and I lived in the coastal mountains of Oregon, between Eugene and Florence. I had spent the night at a friend's house and we were out feeding the chickens when we heard a series of loud noises. It sounded like dynamite blasts, which weren't that uncommon in the area as logging roads, were being built all the time. The thing that made it unusual though was that it was a Sunday morning and no road building was going on at the time. My friend and I remarked, jokingly that it must have been Mt. St. Helens finally blowing its top. When we finished feeding the chickens we went inside and his mom told us the news that it had blown.

The Pumice Plain after the May 1980 eruption of St. Helens. Image courtesy of the USGS/CVO.

Jennifer in Portland
I was 14 at the time, living in Eugene, OR. I was visiting relatives in Seattle when the eruption occurred and I remember driving back down I-5 the day afterward (?). I remember that we were supposed to keep our windows sealed shut, but my grandmother was smoking in the car and I felt like I was suffocating.

At one point, there was a very light sprinkling of ash on our car in Eugene. Lots of people were collecting the ash - I remember the "ashenware" pottery you could buy. You can probably still get it in some tourist shops here.

I also remember visiting the area below the mountain very soon afterward with my parents - we drove up along a river (the Toutle River, maybe?) as far as we could go before reaching a roadblock. It was extremely eery, with uprooted trees clogging the river and everything blanketed in gray. Whenever I drive up I-5 now I see a big hill that used to be ash dredged out of the Toutle river - now it is covered with trees.

At the time of the eruption, my parents were riding their bikes from Eugene to San Francisco. They put "Volcano refugee" signs on their bikes and got a lot of laughs.

I also remember this fantastic red plastic Mt. St. Helens volcano hat that I got soon after the eruption. It had a rubber bulb that you filled with flour, and when you squeezed the bulb, the flour puffed out of the top of the hat like an eruption. I wonder what ever happened to it. Someone in Europe should make a similar hat for Eyjafjallajokull.

Regarding Mt. St. Helens, I have two memories: One, I was a senior in high school driving through rural Iowa to visit a distant girlfriend and somehow I got some conservative scare preacher on the radio. I remember his words "don't you think all of this activity [St Helens] is a sign that something big is happening..." He was declaring eminent apocalypse. I was quite freaked out. Of course little in the way of what the preacher was predicting ever happened.

And the second, I was visiting my brother's graduation from a military academy on the East coast. Another family came from Missoula Montana. I still can picture their senior aged daughter (I thought she was pretty hot -- I know this conflicts with memory 1, but I was 18 at the time). They reported they had been getting ash like snow where they lived. I thought seeing ash would be a great excuse to try to visit this girl.

I had arrived in Corvallis (after working for a few years after high school outside of Cleveland) just a few days after the first earthquake. As you might imagine, this cratonic young man was quite taken with Her Majesty's tantrum. I've actually been doing a series of postson this, combining my recollections and reactions to the volcano, along with stuff I've been able to find on the web, to augment my shaky memories of exactly what happened.

My kids were 8 and 12 at the time and I remember showing them the ash (dust) on the family car from the eruption - they were amazed that it had traveled all the way from Washington to our home in Ann Arbor, MI.

We went to the site, or at least as close as possible, the next summer. I bought a poster of Harry Truman who refused to leave his cabin on Spirit Lake - Harry is still my hero 30 years later!

M. Randolph Kruger
I was between assignments in the military and here in Memphis at home during the January following this. It was COLD and we had taken hits from snowstorm after snowstorm.

I was at a bar called Benigans and the word went out-clear the streets of your abandoned cars, or we will ! Reason given was that the danger of a firestorm was starting to grow as fires broke out from people trying to keep themselves warm would space heater this, throw kerosene into the fireplace that. Dumb but yeah it was happening cause it was zero.

There is a place in East Memphis called Germantown...Beverly Hills East if you will and there were hundreds of abandoned cars on the three main veins that went east. Porches, Mercedes, BMW's and naturally ordinary Chevy's and Fords. So they gave them 'til six to get them off the roads...They didn't cause they were buried in snow and ice. Yep a foot of packed snow into ice at that.

So along about 6 and after I had tankered myself off with about the 5th shot of vodka of the night I see one of those old police Plymouth Fury's that you saw on CHIPS back in the 70's. Full metal rack on the front, snow chains, and its rolling towards a bridge where the cars had collected cause those bridges and overpasses go first right?

There is a kid in there of about 25 and I can tell he is on a mission from God. That mission? Clear the streets of all vehicles not moving. So, with his state of emergency declaration under his belt and of course his seat belt fastened he took the first one like a 16 year old who had been plied with corn liquor and fast talk by a 20 year old.

WHAAAAAAAAM ! He got the first one and he hit it amidships like a torpedo and man I never knew a Volvo could take so much. Moderate damage and it slid up to the curb and then over it onto the sidewalk. Instantly there was an audience. Kid lines up on a Porche next and it it in the tail and it did about 4 spins and it too was up on the curb much worse the wear. I bet it was 20,000 for starts to fix that. Onward he pummelled into the night, taking no heed but for one thing and that was to clear the road. I moved out onto the sidewalk and stopped at the liquor store as he progressed because this was too much fun to watch. I had to follow him. So for about every 5th car, I took a shot of vodka and along about car 25 or 30 I was smashed. But I stayed with him. By now he was at the Holiday Inn and a lot of the people from the freeway and G'town had not gotten the word and they were the ones who had lots of cars out there. I saw one guy with a load of groceries turn purple as he realized what was about to happen to his car but ...errrrrnrnnngngggghhhhh toooooo late bubba. There goes a Chevy 2500 4 speed dual wheel truck. History....Radiator, front end, both front panels. Gone.... Within minutes this was on the news and of course the helicopters were up sending pictures.... It wasn't but another 30 minutes before the kid had received all the fun and recognition he waw going to get.

But it was sure fun to have a class warfare experiment from a volcanic eruption 1800 miles away.

So, you ask for personal accounts. I don't know what you have so far, but I was personally involved in the blast for weeks. The day of the eruption I had entered a 37 mile bike race in Cheney, Wa. About half way through the race I noticed what looked like the mother of all storms to the west. I anticipated getting hammered by rain or hail by the end of the race. I actually won that particular minor race, but, just as pulled in to the finishing area, the ash started to fall. It was only then that someone told me about the mountain. Victory was short lived since I had my wife, some friends and my 6 month old daughter in the car that now had to be driven 20+ miles into Spokane, Wa. where I lived. By the time we had traveled 10 miles, visibility was close to zero, I had to open my door to see the edge of the road, wipers were useless. Finally getting home I picked up my 2 yr. old son and waited for the news of what happened and what to do. Rumors of possible silicosis were bandied by the news for the first few days, everyone wore masks. We would encouraged to sweep the ash from in front of our homes since it would reduce the amount of airborne ash. The business where I worked was closed for the week, however we were enlisted in sweeping the ash off the roof. In the long run, other than a dead lawnmower that sucked in to much ash, there weren't any dire consequences, just some great stories. Many communities around us had it far worse, but the larger population of Spokane certainly received greater attention.

I was 10 at the time, living in suburban Portland, roughly 60 miles from the volcano. Since at least a year beforehand, I'd been interested enough in volcanoes to check out USGS publications on the Cascades from the local library, and I'd worn out my own copy of Harris's "Fire & Ice," so obviously I was excited when Mt. St. Helens began erupting in March, 1980. On the morning of Sunday, May 18 I was at a neighbor's house when his mother told me that Mt. St. Helens was blowing up big time ? We'd heard nothing. I rushed home, turned on the TV, and saw the massive mudflow churning down the Toutle River. It was overcast in Portland for much of the day, so for quite a while the only footage was of bridges getting wrecked, etc., and there was nothing to see from the city. But it cleared later, and my family went
up onto a hill late in the day to witness the ongoing eruption. The mountain I knew seemed half gone; ash boiled 10 miles into the sky. I think my parents had a hard time pushing me back into the car to go home.

I was on a boat near Reedsport, Oregon when the volcano went off. We actually heard the boom, thought it was the fuel dock exploding again. (Long story...) When we found out that it was Helens we were amazed at how far away we had heard it. There was this crazy guy who was a media hero for staying through the evacuation, he died of course (along with some scientists.)

A college friend of mine had been in Portland during the eruption. He had gone in to see an afternoon movie (Star Wars? memory is hazy) and when he came out it was pitch black.

My Uncle and his friends shared a lawnmower (Portland) to try to get the ash off of the grass. They knew it would trash the mower so they all pitched in for a replacement. Cleaning the gutters was apparently an absolute chore.

I have a beautiful glass bowl made from Helens glass.

In Eugene we got a light dusting of ash a few times, enough to mess up the cars. Getting it off without scratching the paint (my Dad is very particular about cars) was next to impossible. Although hosing was ineffective, a series of strong rainstorms seemed to help.

We had a TRS-80 computer that we were very concerned about (my Dad taught statistics at the University) so we always sealed it up really well when we left the house for awhile. We also had multiple air filters for the cars.

Blowdown of trees near Mount St. Helens after the May 1980 eruption. Image courtesy of the USGS/CVO.

Natural Cynic
I was a graduate student at Washington State in Pullman, directly in the line of the ash cloud as it moved eastwards. I lived east of town on the Moscow-Pullman highway and that morning I watched part of an NBA playoff game in the morning and news bulletins that the mountain had blown interrupted the broadcast. I had duties in our animal room to take care of that afternoon, so I thought that I should get them done as soon as possible. As I rode my bike west towards campus, it was a
bright sunny day, but it looked like a massive thunderstorm was moving eastwards dark, billowing clouds in the sky about 20 degrees above the horizon. I had the radio on and was listening to the reports and by the time I had finished most of my work and had a chance to look outside, it was after 2 PM and it was getting very dark. I walked to the student union to see what was going on and to see what was on TV. A whole lot of people were in a state near panic since no one knew about the toxicity of the ash. I returned to the lab and made sure that all windows were closed and I found a supply of standard filter masks and returned to the Student Union and handed them out to anyone who wanted one as they were exiting the building. As it turned out, no one needed them that badly.

The most vivid recollection that I had was being outside at 3 in the afternoon and almost the whole sky was pitch black. The only natural light was a thin band on the eastern horizon appearing to be grey-streaked orange-red.

Not being sure of my own safety I decided not to pedal home, so I just did a lot of studying and crashed in my office that night. In the morning the sun was shining through a low-lying haze and the ground was covered with about 2-3 inches of grayish beige dust. There was almost no traffic moving and any vehicle that moved was trailed with an ash plume. There were warnings to drive at 5 mph to keep the dust to a minimum. By noon, it was obvious that things were not going to be normal the rest of the semester. There had been a run on beer at the local markets. Many classes were cancelled for the week, but we grad students just carried on as if little had happened - we were preparing to go en masse to a scientific meting later that week. When we got back, it had been decided that anyone could go home early and would receive as a final grade the grade that they had before the ashfall.

Pullman is surrounded by wheat and dry pea fields and the ash apparently helped seal the moisture in the soil, leading to a bumper crop. The farmers were happy, except for the fact that that they had to go through many extra air filters on their combines.

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The Burke Museum will mark the 30th anniversary of the biggest geological event in the Pacific Northwest of our lifetime â the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens â with an evening of talks, displays, food and drink. View displays of plants and animals collected from the blast zone for research, hear what scientists learned from the eruption itself, and learn about the stunning return of life to the blast zone.

Amazing post. Congratulations to all. And happy birthday (tomorrow) to Mount Saint Helens...

By David Calvo (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink

Great stuff. As a kid living on the East Coast, my memories are just of news reports on television. I remember seeing people shoveling the ash with snow shovels, and thinking: that certainly doesn't look like fun.

I'm currently reading "Volcanoes Crucibles of Change" by Fisher, Heiken, Hulen.

I also always thought JSB version:
"I remember David Johnston, the vulcanologist who died while monitoring the eruption. "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" were his last words. He couldn't save himself, but he and the other USGS scientists probably saved thousands of others by insisting on closing the red zone around the mountain."

However, this book tells how Johnston came to be on duty at the observation site that day. Until that time IT WAS A GRADUATE STUDENT/summer field assitant to Johnston on duty (Harry Glicken). He had an appointment made in Feb. to be in Calif. to discuss graduate school May 18th and his supervisor David Johnston, volunteered to take this place that fateful day. Apparently, this site was manned normally only by one person Glicken.

We think of the paid professional doing the primary work but how much of science is really done by students in the field of study?

I've been thinking about those famous time-lapse photos of the collapse (was the photographer Gary Rosenquist?) and what an amazing set of circumatances made them possible:
-It happened in daylight (could easily have taken place after dark, volcanoes don't keep office hours)
=It happened on a Sunday (during the week the photographer wouldn't have been free to go volcano-watching)
-Clear blue skies and sunshine (low cloud and rain/fog/snow are more typical Cascades spring weather)
-The camera was aimed at the 'bulge' (had Mrs Rosenquist not bumped into the mounting, or had there been opportunity to correct the setting, it would have been focussed on the summit)
-And most important of all, the initial blast missed the campsite (a very small difference in the geometry of the collapse and the blast would have swept over the campsite with likely fatal results for the Rosenquists and the camera; as it was it passed within, I think, 2km of them)

Fortune favours the brave, as Pliny The Elder reputedly said (much good did it do him)

I've seen a lot of claims about the volcanic sand being great for agriculture. I guess if people are lucky to have a volcano that spits out the right minerals it's great - you have a sterile medium and all you need are the seeds and water. But you have to survive the sand being dumped on you - for people near the volcano they typically don't have a harvest until about 2 years after the eruption ceases. I went to Pinatubo about a year after the eruption and there were great gray deserts where the sand had accumulated; it was quite a contrast to the forest areas which were not destroyed.

@Erik: Can you delete the spam (and preferably block the spammer)?

By MadScientist (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink

on may 18 1980 i li.ved in yakima wa i was in 5th grade that morning i rember seeing a dark rain cloud my brother said that the mt st helens erupted.than my came in front room said yes it did erupt she went outside got the clothes of the clothesline we got all of our pets in the house my mom. we weent inside we shocked when we looked outside at noon it was pitch black outside we went outside to feel the ash it felt like sand. the next day the school was canceled for a week until the ash was cleaned up for a whole week the sky was gray my 2 older brothers and my dad were in the gaurd and was involed with the cleanup of yakima.

By patsy lake (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink

@JB: Yeah, volcano work is definitely hazardous. Even when in the field with vulcanologists I'm always going "why the hell do you want to go *there*, any sensible person would go the other way". At least I've never had the dubious pleasure of dodging volcanic bombs - an activity some friends have engaged in. On one trip I meant to fly around a volcano in a helicopter; unfortunately for me I was accompanied by one vulcanologist from the USGS and my pilot had many years' service with a volcano observatory - and they flew right into the vent. It's bad enough there's a pretty high risk of being killed by a pyroclastic flow while flying around, but people who want to fly into the vent are just plain nuts. I remember one email a few years ago cautioning against entering the S/SE to NW sector of a certain vent because the turbines may lose too much power and not be able to hold altitude; I felt like writing back "normal people simply avoid all sectors of an active vent".

By MadScientist (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink

Volcanologists ponder a spate of deaths in the line of duty

Article Abstract:

Twelve volcanologists have died in eruptions since 1991. Some scientists want safety guidelines to be used during field work. Others, including one who was badly injured in eruption, advise caution in applying too many restrictions in an overreaction to the problem.
author: Kerr, Richard A.
Publisher: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Publication Name: Science
Subject: Science and technology
ISSN: 0036-8075
Year: 1993

I thought about saying something here earlier but refrained from it because I was not directly concerned with St Helens. But it is true that I first heard of Mount St Helens in 1975, when I was 13 and already very very interested in volcanoes. Back then, a German news magazine had a little piece that cited the famous "Science" report by Crandell, Mullineaux and Rubin (Science vol. 187, pp. 438-441, link:, which warned of a new eruption of the volcano "perhaps before the end of this [the 20th] century".

On 19 May 1980, German newspapers carried the news of the explosion of St Helens. Strangely enough, I was not very surprised, though learning all the details of this event later, I started being haunted by its magnitude and dynamics, and the feeling of awe has never quit since then.

I recently bought an excellent book that narrates the events surrounding the 1980 eruption of St Helens from a very different, and exceptionally human perspective. The human dimension has never been told fully in all other reports on the eruption, and there is still belief that most of the 57 people who died were in the "forbidden" zone, which as a matter of fact, most weren't. Among all that I've read about St Helens, this is the one book that has most thoroughly stirred my emotions. Everyone who's interested in this volcano and the events of 1980 and later, MUST ABSOLUTELY read this book.

Frank Parchman, "Echoes of Fury: The 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens and the Lives It Changed Forever", Epicenter Press 2005, 432 p…

John H. McDonald:

I was an undergrad at the University of Washington in spring 1980....That was May 17. At 8:28 the next morning, the place we'd had our picnic, and the roadblock on the Spirit Lake highway, were buried under a rapidly moving wall of mud, ash, and logs.

Wow! I lived a block up from Lander and Terry Hall, so we had lots of friends in those dorms.

We heard all about the group from the dorm who took a trip and got waved through the road blocks the day before the eruption. It was legendary. I'm glad to see you post that memory.

It certainly beats my lame story. I found out about the volcano by a sign at the communications center at the University Street Fair. I went home and called my soon (within a week) husband at a friend's room in Lander Hall where they were gaming. I told them to turn on the TV, which they did... and images they saw made them forget about killing orcs.

I was a musician in Portland in 1980. I was supposed to play at the Bumbershoot festival in Seattle I think on May 19, so I was planning to drive up on the 18th. I was staying at a friend's house, a decrepit little Victorian in SE Portland that he had radically remodeled, installing several skylights. One was directly above the bed in the loft where I was sleeping. I opened my eyes, saw the grey muck on the skylight, and knew right away what had happened. I-5 was closed, so I missed the Bumbershoot gig. That's probably why I never got rich & famous, and eventually changed careers. Now I'm a science writer! My dad, a geologist, made several sets of earrings for his daughters by melting the ash into beautiful black spheres.

Does anyone know if windows were broken in Seattle by the MSH eruption? A number of my Geology 101 students tell me they heard about this from their parents. I don't remember hearing anything about this previously.
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