Standing on the top edge of Mt. St. Helens, looking at Mt. Adams
By Angie Quantrell @AngieQuantrell
What were you doing on May 18, 1980?
Maybe you were not even born yet! That does make me feel old, so let’s keep that to ourselves.
On that beautiful Sunday morning, so many years ago, I was at church with my family and friends. It was during Sunday school, so the time was early in the day.
Rocks, rocks, rocks!
Murmurs of something going on and the escalation of tension crept throughout the groups of people. We all went outside and saw huge, billowing, black clouds racing our way from the west.
Upon the advice of emergency officials and church leaders, everyone was sent home.
Soon, the entire sky was overtaken by the black gray heavy clouds. Not rain clouds as they appeared, but ash and smoke. Grit started to pour down. It wasn’t a gentle ash, but steady and thick.
Mostly we were excited to find out what was happening. I don’t remember being afraid at all, just curious. We got to skip out on church, and though we were all advised to stay inside out of the ash, we ventured out several times to check out the weather.
At that time, we didn’t have immediate access to world events. No one really had computers, just radios and the basic television channels. Phones were all old fashioned and connected to a wall phone jack. Information traveled much slower.
A view of what’s left at the top of Mt. St. Helens
One of my weekend jobs was to care for an elderly lady one street over. Mrs. Nelson lived by herself in a big house. She was alone that volcano-y day. I received a call asking that I go over and check on her. I did so, and explained to her what was going on and made sure she had her lunch and the things she needed.
My then future-husband was on his own for the weekend, as his parents were out of town. So he ended up at our house for much of that week. He was normally there, so that was nothing new.
As this was our first volcano eruption, we had no idea what we were in for. School was open as usual Monday morning. We headed to school. I remember trying to use the windshield wipers. Scrape, grit, scrape, grit. Not a good idea.
It was all excitement for the students. A volcano! Ash and grit. LOTS of ash and grit. A volcano ashfall.
The problems became evident soon enough. Students waiting for buses to stop were overwhelmed with clouds of billowing, drifting ash. We couldn’t breathe! People started wearing face masks just to be able to be outside. Vehicles were being damaged by the large amounts of ash and grit being inhaled and forced through the internal engines. Others tried to begin the clean up process, only to find there was nowhere to put their mountains of ash.
The girl with the cow shorts heading up Mt. St. Helens
So much ash. Inches fell on every little thing. Daytime looked like nighttime. Headlights had to be used to improve visibility.
After Monday, school was cancelled for the rest of the week in order to give everyone time for cleaning away ash. I’m sure officials were scrambling to figure out what to do with the ash, checking to see how dangerous it was for breathing, and searching to find out what damage was being done to the machines that were out working through the depths of the volcano fallout.
Things slowly returned to as much normal as could be expected. Mt. St. Helens was forever changed. Much of the mountain was spread throughout Washington state and the northwest. The Yakima Valley was in the ash fallout zone, while others on the opposite side of the mountain were hit by pyroclastic flows of steam, ash, mud, melted snow, and raging rivers. Lighter ash was transferred around the world by wind. Farmers washed off or plowed under the layers of ash all over our farmlands. People collected jars and containers of ash as momentos. Creative folks figured out ways to transform the ash into artwork and jewelry. Books were written, studies conducted, interviews given, and research began.
Not everyone survived that day. But for those of us who did, we remember the day the mountain blew.
So much information has been collected, stored, and shared. You can read more about Mt. St. Helens here.
Me (left) and Kevin at the summit of Mt. St. Helens
We have no personal photos of Mt. St. Helens the day it blew. If we did, we probably would not be alive to share them. We did, however, hike to the top of the mountain in 1993. After reading the warnings on paperwork from the ranger station, we seriously considered our health and personal welfare! Watch out for steam vents, thin crust, the edge of the top (where the edge often broke off), the dome in the center of the volcano (we couldn’t go there), and tremors. It was and is a live volcano, after all!
I’d love to hear what you were doing on the day the mountain blew.