At 8:32 Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted. Shaken by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale, the north face of this tall symmetrical mountain collapsed in a massive rock debris avalanche. In a few moments this slab of rock and ice slammed into Spirit Lake, crossed a ridge 1,300 feet high, and roared 14 miles down the Toutle River.
The avalanche rapidly released pressurized gases within the volcano. A tremendous lateral explosion ripped through the avalanche and developed into a turbulent, stone-filled wind that swept over ridges and toppled trees. Nearly 150 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead and standing.
At the same time a mushroom-shaped column of ash rose thousands of feet skyward and drifted downwind, turning day into night as dark, gray ash fell over eastern Washington and beyond. Wet, cement-like slurries of rock and mud scoured all sides of the volcano. Searing flows of pumice poured from the crater. The eruption lasted 9 hours, but Mount St. Helens and the surrounding landscape were dramatically changed within moments.
Fifty-seven people and thousands of animals were killed. A vast, gray landscape lay where once the forested slopes of Mount St. Helens grew.
Thirty-two years ago today, Mount St. Helens blew her top. I remember it as though it were yesterday.
Saturday morning we packed up the motor home and headed for our favorite fishing spot. We spent a lot of time at Badger Lake, up by Spokane. We loved the campground, and the fishing was good. Of course we took our three youngest children, but we left Barney the dog at home in the back yard. One of my husband's employees had offered to check on him and make sure he had food and water.
We went out in the boat Sunday morning, just the two of us, and left the kids to play at the camp site with the oldest in charge. We were enjoying a beautiful, warm day on the water when I noticed some very dark clouds forming in the west. I told my husband it looked as though we were in for a really bad storm, so we'd better head back to the campground. In the few minutes it took us to return, it got darker and darker, so by the time we reached the shore it was as black as night. The children were waiting for us at the dock, wondering what was happening.....as were we. We had no idea what was taking place.
We got everyone back to the motor home and turned on the radio. That's when we discovered just what was happening to us. We went back down to the boat and removed the battery to use at the motor home, so we could keep the radio on. White flakes of ash had begun to fall from the sky. It looked like it was snowing, but the air around us was stifling hot. Trying to get some fresh air, I opened the windows in the motor home and hung wet towels over them to keep the ash from coming in. We all settled in to listen to the radio, and to worry about whether we would survive through the night.
Survive we did. We awoke to six inches of white ash covering everything. There was nothing we could do but wait and wonder how we were going to get through this mess and back to our home, 120 miles away.
We had planned on only two days of fishing, so I hadn't brought a lot of supplies. The small store at the lake didn't sell groceries, so we knew we had to at least get to nearby Williams Lake, where they had a fully equipped store. It wasn't very far, maybe ten miles, but it took hours to get from one lake to the next. We could only travel a mile or two at most before stopping to remove and try to shake the ash from the air filter on the motor home. It was the longest ten miles I've ever travelled in my life.
We made it to Williams Lake on Monday afternoon, and purchased enough groceries to keep us eating for a few days. I worried about the dog, and about our swimming pool that had just recently been opened for the summer. According to the radio reports, our town had received a thick layer of the ash, a report I later found to be quite false. We worried about our businesses. We owned two service stations and a towing company, and the telephone lines were down, there was no way to reach our assistant manager or any of our employees.
Monday night was spent at Williams Lake, but on Tuesday morning we met up with another couple from our town. They had found out the ash wasn't bad at all to the south of us, so we decided we would travel together and try to make it home. We took off, still stopping every mile or two to clean out the air filters. Our travel partners decided to take a secondary road south, while we felt staying on the main highway would be the safer option, so we parted company and we headed west toward Ritzville. We arrived at Ritzville sometime Tuesday afternoon and made the turn south toward home.
We were still traveling in deep ash, and even though I still kept the windows open and wet towls hung over them, the ash inside the motor home was so thick I couldn't see the back of the coach from where I was sitting in the front. It was so bad, I convinced my husband to turn around and go back to Ritzville. I honestly felt the ash was going to suffocate my children. We got the motor home turned around, which wasn't an easy feat on that highway, with nearly zero visibility. We managed to jacknife the boat trailer into the rear of the motor home, causing some minor damage, and we headed back toward town. As we approached the freeway overpass, the vehicle in front of us stopped. We had to stop.....and the motor died. It never ran again.
Our oldest daughter and I tied wet handkerchiefs around our nose and mouth and took off walking toward town. We stopped at the very first motel, and as luck would have it a group of people had just vacated to try to make their way to their homes in Seattle. We got not one but two rooms for our family of five, at a very nominal price. The proprietor was charging only what it cost him to operate his business, rather than take advantage of the situation. We would find out that there were many more fine citizens of that town who were willing to help wherever they could. A local Ritzville farmer came to our aid. He hooked up his truck to our motor home and towed it to a large pole building he owned near town. He put the motor home and boat in the building for safe keeping as long as needed. He taxied us from our motel, three times a day, to the local Lutheran Church where the church ladies were cooking and serving meals. They fed a lot of stranded people, free of charge, out of the kindness of their hearts. I'm sad to say our own Catholic Church's doors were closed and locked throughout this ordeal. I'm happy to say we made a generous donation to the Ritzville Lutheran Church when the ordeal was over.
Phone service was finally restored, and we were happy to finally get in touch with people at home. We found there was only a light dusting of the ash, the dog was fine, the swimming pool was clean, and the businesses were running as normal.
At midnight on Friday, five days after the eruption, we boarded a special train that was sent to Ritzville to bring "the refugees" home to the Tri-Cities. We arrived in the wee hours of the morning, and rejoiced as we left the train and our feet hit the ground! Home never looked so good.
It was several days before the tow truck was equipped with a special "snorkel" to keep the ash from clogging the filter, and it made the trip back to Ritzville to bring the motor home and boat home. Our insurance paid for a new motor for the motor home. It took forever to clean the ash from our boat (I later found out the kids sold some of it for $1 a bottle!). It was definitely an experience of a lifetime, and one I never want to go through again.