Saturday, May 18, 2013

May 18, 1980

I was 13 years old in 1980.  I can remember that year vividly.  I was in seventh grade and my mother had had some pretty serious ongoing health issues that year.  By May, Mom was starting to feel a bit better and things seemed to be going back to normal.  It was a Sunday morning and we went about doing our normal activities.  The TV was never turned on as we began our morning.  By early afternoon, Dad and my brother were doing yard work and my other brother and I were up at the school playing basketball.  Mom noticed that our cat began acting strangely.  She was pacing around and yowling…which was unusual for her.  The sky began turning dark like a huge storm was approaching.  Mom started calling everyone into the house and yelled for my brother and me to come home.  Something strange started drifting down like rain…yet it wasn’t rain – it was ash.

May 18, 1980 was a landmark day for anyone who lived in the Pacific Northwest…especially if you lay in the path of Mt St. Helens.  Everyone who lived here can tell you what that day was like - it was etched in our memory. For weeks we had been watching the news and listening to the nightly updates on the activity of the volcano.  We saw old Harry Truman declare that he would not leave his mountain.  There were beautiful pictures of a near perfect looking snowcapped peak and a pristine lake in front of it.  We heard from the geologists what could happen.  We learned about the connection of seismic activity and the volcano’s awakening.  From March to May 18, 1980, we learned a lot of things.  My grandmother’s diary in 1980 begins most entries on what Mt St Helen’s was doing that day.  She noted the small eruptions of steam out of the crater and the several small earthquakes.  Grandma talked about the news reports and stories about old Harry Truman.  Every night we saw something about the volcano.  It was kind of exciting…until May 18th and then it was frightening.
There was a large earthquake at 8:32 am that caused the entire north face of the volcano to collapse and then there was a huge eruption with an 80,000 feet ash column that rose from the volcano.  Those beautiful glaciers in an instant became a mud flow that decimated everything in its path.  Within seconds, 57 people died who lived around that volcano.   The pristine forests, beautiful lake and scenic vistas were replaced with something that had been laid bare of all life.  We didn’t have the 24 hour news channels back then and had to wait for the evening news and special reports to find out what was happening.  It was only a few hours after the eruption when we began having ash fall from the sky.  Within a short time, there was a few inches of ash on the ground in the middle of late spring day.  It almost looked like snow had fallen and you couldn’t see too far in front of you because the visibility was so bad.  The news reports cautioned people to stay home and only drive if absolutely necessary.  They didn’t know what the ash would do to the engines in the cars.  While Lewiston, ID received a couple of inches of ash, Spokane, WA just a 100 miles northeast had 4-5 inches of ash on the ground.  There were other cities that even had more ash.  Ash reached eleven states and drifted around the world for two weeks. 

We hadn’t yet seen the famous footage of the volcanic eruption, that wouldn’t happen until the next few days.  When I set off the next day to walk to school, I was wearing an air mask.  My seventh grade physical geology class was quite interesting.  We paid close attention and questioned our teacher on what had happened.  We were much more knowledgeable than we had been earlier that year.  All of the news reports had educated us on what was going on…I don’t remember if we saw it on the Monday news…it might have been later in the week….but that footage that was taken that showed moment by moment the destruction of Mt St Helens was mesmerizing…and is still mesmerizing today.
Life was different back in 1980.  We had a limited amount of television channels to watch and most of the news was on in the evening.  The newspaper was filled with reports of ash amounts in all of the surrounding areas and dire warnings of caution around the ash.  No matter how old I grow, I will never forget that day.  I won’t forget the darkening sky, the falling ash, my terrified cat who could tell something was happening before the rest of us, or the footage of that eruption and pictures of the towering ash column that stretched over the volcano.  There has been intermittent activity at Mt St Helens during the past thirty three years since it erupted.  I can remember driving along the Columbia Gorge years after the eruption and still seeing the remnants of the ash along the road…and after all this time, life seems to be growing back slowly but surely around the volcano.  It is hard to believe that it is 33 years ago today…I don’t think that I will ever forget May 18th or the days that followed.