Blast From the Past: Locals recall the eruption of Mount St. Helens, 40 years later

click to enlarge Blast From the Past: Locals recall the eruption of Mount St. Helens, 40 years later
Courtesy Roger Crum
Downtown Spokane seen dusted in ash the following day, Monday, May 19, 1980. This photo was taken at the corner of Post St. and Spokane Falls Blvd., at City Hall, looking east.
Most people old enough to remember where they were and what they were doing on Sunday, May 18, 1980, the day Mount St. Helens catastrophically erupted, haven’t forgotten those details, even 40 years later.

In commemoration of the historic event’s 40th anniversary, the cover of this week’s Inlander looks back at how that moment impacted the Inland Northwest, even hundreds of miles from the volcano. We spoke with many living in the region when Mount St. Helens dramatically blew its top off, killing 57 people, flattening miles of forest and spewing millions of tons of ash into the atmosphere. The menacing black ash cloud quickly blew eastward, blanketing everything in its path in pitch darkness, and dumping inches of gritty, volcanic ash onto the landscape from Central Washington to Western Montana.

While not all of the stories we collected made it into the print edition, we're sharing some locals' stories, in their own words, here:

Dave Johnson
The Spokane resident was 16 at the time, attending Lewis & Clark High School and interning for a local AM radio station

"We were aware of Mount St. Helens because it had started doing its thing in March. My next door neighbor worked for United Press International. I had wanted to be in radio, so he [had previously] asked me to come to the station every day after school.

I believe we had CNN, but it was all over the news and we were watching this story unfold. At about 2:30 in the afternoon, when you looked to the west and it just looked like the worst thunderstorm ever coming. From horizon to horizon, it was completely black and by 3:30 the street lights came on and it was this dead, silent snowstorm. It was so unsettling.

The next day, Monday, I put on some sort of mask and walked across the Maple Street Bridge to the station and I answered phones for the next 12 hours. I was just a 16-year-old kid watching the news unfold. We had the AP Wire and it just never stopped dinging. That was my first experience being in a radio station during breaking news."
click to enlarge Blast From the Past: Locals recall the eruption of Mount St. Helens, 40 years later
U.S. Air Force
Men unload a truckload of ash during cleanup at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Kris Dinnison
The Spokane author and owner of Boo Radley’s and Atticus Coffee & Gifts was 11 at the time, and living in the Tri-Cities

“I was over in Seattle when it happened. I was on a soccer team and my two best friends and I and my parents were over there. We spent [Saturday] night in Seattle and went sightseeing that whole Sunday. Back then you didn’t have the news all the time, so we weren’t listening to the radio or reading newspapers. It was a Sunday, it was whatever. We didn’t know it had happened until we tried to go home and hit Issaquah and I-90 was closed. We were like ‘What’s going on?’ and by that time all the hotels were full.

So we drove south through the Columbia Gorge. I just remember driving all night to get home and when we woke up the next morning, there was ash everywhere. I don't think it was like in Spokane, but it was definitely around. I missed the skies going dark and all that kind of stuff, but had this sort of bizarre experience of coming back to this landscape. People were collecting it in bottles and thought they were going to make a fortune with the ash, and I remember people wearing masks and shoveling ash from their driveways and flower beds.”

John Waite
The owner of Auntie’s Books and Merlyn’s Comics was 15 at the time, living in West Central Spokane

“It was technically the first day of Merlyn’s; its opening day. I wasn’t working there but I knew [then owners] Chris O’Harra and Shannon Ahern, and had been a helper for Book and Game Co. [Merlyn’s predecessor]. I was at the Flour Mill doing something, and my mother called frantically, which was super weird, and said ‘You need to come home right now.’

I lived about eight blocks away, and I was like ‘Oh shit, I’m in trouble.’

So I go outside and as I'm hitting home, I look to the west and it was like Mordor coming at me from Lord of the Rings. It was the scariest thing I had ever seen in my life. I couldn’t figure out what it was; my brain couldn't interpret what I was seeing. As soon as I got home it just hit. That must have been about 3 pm.

My father worked for the railroad and had to keep working as a mechanic that kept the lines running. So he would go out in this giant truck with all his tools and make sure trains were running and tracks were working. He had to take 50 air filters with him to drive off to Walla Walla and Ritzville.

I remember people driving around Spokane and it was this billowing, dusty madness for like a week.”
click to enlarge Blast From the Past: Locals recall the eruption of Mount St. Helens, 40 years later
Mount St. Helens shown from the International Space Station in 2002.
DeeAnne McGhee
The Spokane resident was working at Deaconess Hospital, and was 29 at the time

"I worked weekends for my shift, so I went to work like normal on Sunday. I was driving to work at 1 pm and looked over way to the west and thought ‘Wow it looks so dark over there,’ but I didn't think much of it.

Being a Sunday, I could park on the street in front of the hospital and I could see my car from the lobby. So I parked and went inside and that was the first I heard about what happened. I worked in the cardiac care unit. We were talking about what does this mean for the hospital, and we had to scramble and figure out what to do. They ended up thinking the ash was going to come in through the air ducts if we didn't turn them off, so they turned them off. It got very stuffy, very fast and it got hot.

A bit of time went by and then they announced to everyone who was there — they’d made it to evening and the day shift had left in a hurry — ‘Sorry, you are the last crew in here for we don't know how long.’

Everyone who had come to work for that evening shift, we didn’t know when we were going to go home. We had to work out showers, changing our clothes and we slept on empty patient beds in shifts. It was kind of a fun time, but it was a little nerve wracking because we didn’t know. I could go down on my break and look out at my car that was totally covered, and I thought ‘Hmm, even if they tell us we can go home, will my car start?’

Glen Hand
The Spokane resident was 12 at the time, living near Mount Spokane

"I was out riding bikes that morning with a friend of mine named Zane Smith. I remember it was about 1 o’clock in the afternoon and we looked off to the west and could see this huge black cloud rolling in towards us. I remember looking at Zane and telling him ‘Look at that big cloud, we’re going to get a great big storm coming in. Maybe we better go to my house and eat lunch and wait for it to pass.’

So we rode to my house, which was about a half mile away, and went in the house to get lunch and the phone was ringing. It was our neighbor telling us that Mount St. Helens had just erupted and that we needed to get our animals inside. Well, I kind of laughed at him and said ‘Yeah right, Mount St. Helens didn’t erupt.’ He said ‘Well, if you don’t believe me, turn on the television.’

So I turned on the television and, sure enough, on the news they were saying that Mount St. Helens had erupted and we all needed to take shelter. So Zane headed home and I remember by 3 o’clock that afternoon — we had a yard light about 80 feet out in front of our house — it was so dark and the ash was coming down so thick you couldn’t see the light any longer. It was just creepy and weird. None of the animals were making noise. The birds weren’t flying. It was just a weird, eerie feeling.

I just remember that things really changed after that; the way we lived for a short period of time, everybody running around with masks on kind of like they are now. Only thing was we were trying to keep the ash out of our lungs so we didn’t get sick. It was definitely a huge turning point in my life, realizing just how fragile life can be especially after seeing all of the destruction that eruption caused.”

click to enlarge Blast From the Past: Locals recall the eruption of Mount St. Helens, 40 years later
Courtesy Roger Crum
A car travels down an ash-covered residential street on Spokane's South Hill.
Jim Louie
The Spokane resident was 22 at the time

"I remember hearing that the mountain had erupted and I didn’t think much about it. Driving up Division Street at about 1 pm, it looked like a big thunderstorm coming from the southwest of Spokane. About an hour later, coming back down Division, the Franklin park softball fields had the lights on at about 2 pm. It was a dark, eerie feeling driving.

I had a black truck then. At the traffic lights, the ash would settle on the hood, the blow off when you drove. There was a slight smell of sulfur in the air. It was about 5 o’clock when the ash cloud moved away and everything was grey — it looked like a picture taken with black and white film when you looked out the window. "

Michael Perry
The Spokane resident was 10 at the time

"I was outside playing and I was very excited that day because Watership Down was going to premiere that evening on HBO. It suddenly got very cloudy and dark. I was afraid that I had missed the show and ran home, only to find out that it was still early in the day.

We then heard on the news that Mount St. Helens had erupted and the stuff that was starting to fall from the sky was ash. We had to wear face masks for several weeks and put covers over the radiators of our cars. The ash got into everything. We had to shovel ash like it was snow and there were giant piles of it around town. Most of us took garden hoses and sprayed down everything, which then created big globs of ashy mud."

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About The Author

Chey Scott

Chey Scott is the Inlander's Arts and Culture Editor and editor of the Inlander's yearly, glossy magazine, the Annual Manual. Chey (pronounced "Shay") is a lifelong resident of the Spokane area and a graduate of Washington State University. She's been on staff at the Inlander since 2012...