Until May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington was postcard perfect. A symmetrical cone-shaped peak, nicknamed "Mount Fuji of America," the snow-capped Cascade volcano towered over lush old-growth forests and sparkling, clear lakes.
While she'd awakened from another long slumber earlier that spring, rumbling the ground and belching steam and ash into the air, no one truly expected the beautiful and cloudless spring morning, a Sunday, to be much different.
But it was.
Within seconds of Mount St. Helens' violent eruption at 8:32 am, the entire landscape within 18 miles of its summit was unrecognizable — a smoking, barren wasteland.
Many residents of the Pacific Northwest remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when the fateful news finally arrived.
Roger Crum, then Spokane's deputy city manager, was at home on the South Hill when a neighbor kid came by to tell the Crum family that "Mount St. Helens had blown its top." Soon after, an ominous black ash cloud unlike anything anyone had ever seen crept over the western horizon, completely blotting out the mid-afternoon sun.
"All of a sudden, everything turned black and dark, and dust started falling out of the air," Crum, 81, says. "That was our first introduction to the mountain going."
DeeAnne McGhee had just reported to her shift at Deaconess Hospital in downtown Spokane when she learned the mountain had finally blown, roughly two months after first reawakening that spring. McGhee and other employees on shift that afternoon ended up stuck there for the next two days when the hospital locked down due to the resulting ashfall.
Merl D. Gorton, Jr., a colonel in the Washington National Guard, was on his way to the Guard's Camp Murray headquarters in Western Washington that morning when he first noticed a massive gray cloud rapidly rising to the south.
"I saw this dark cloud and thought, 'Wow, a storm coming,'" Gorton, now 90, recalls from his Spokane Valley home. "I got into my office and someone came in and said, 'Merl, the mountain just blew.'"
As director of operations for the Washington State Military Department, which oversees the Guard and the state's emergency management division, Gorton immediately got to work, ordering helicopter crews training in Yakima that weekend to fly out immediately for rescue operations.
"The last one left just when the dust closed the airport down," he says.
Spokane business owner John Waite was 15 at the time, and remembers being at the Flour Mill for opening day of the local shop that eventually became Merlyn's Comics, which he now owns.
"My mother called [the shop] frantically, which was super weird, and said 'You need to come home right now,'" Waite recalls. "I go outside and as I'm heading 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."
The volcano's cataclysmic blast that sunny spring morning 40 years ago flattened 230 square miles of forest, killed 57 people, and destroyed or damaged 200 homes and 47 bridges when volcanic mudflows churned through the valleys below. Thousands of animals also died in what is now known as the most economically and physically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history.
The mountain itself lost 1,300 feet from its summit when its north face catastrophically collapsed, triggering the largest landslide ever recorded. The eruption sent a column of ash and volcanic debris 15 miles into the sky that then blew eastward and dumped millions of tons of ash across Central Washington, the Inland Northwest and beyond. By late afternoon, it was as dark as a moonless midnight in Spokane.
THE REGION RESPONDS
Hundreds of miles from the volcano, Glen Hand and his family were home in the foothills of Mount Spokane. Hand, 12 at the time, vividly remembers watching the ash cloud roll over the horizon early that afternoon. He and his friend Zane Smith were out riding their bikes along the idyllic country roads of Greenbluff.
"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,'" Hand recalls.
When they got to Hand's house, a neighbor called with news that Mount St. Helens had erupted. Hand initially didn't believe the neighbor, a kid his age, but he turned on the TV to check. Local reports advised people and their animals to take shelter as the ash cloud approached.
"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."
"We had a yard light about 80 feet out in front of our house, and by three o'clock it was so dark and the ash was coming down so thick that you couldn't see the light any longer," he says. "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."
By 3:30 pm, the entire region was blanketed by a roiling cloud of volcanic ash that rained down a hellish gray snow, covering everything in fine powder that piled up several inches deep in some areas. Many drivers caught in the ash storm were suddenly stranded when the grit clogged engine air filters. Disabled vehicles were abandoned along roads.
The following day, Monday, Deputy City Manager Crum and other leaders convened at City Hall to craft a response plan.
"We immediately tried to get in contact with the county health officer to find out if there were detrimental effects of breathing the dust," Crum recalls. "Everyone was trying to figure out how to get rid of it, and there wasn't much research to go off of."
Activity across the region came to a halt.
Spokane International Airport grounded flights for several days. Spokane police paused regular patrols to only answer calls because the ash was wreaking havoc on its cruisers. In Coeur d'Alene, all boats on the lake were ordered to dock that first afternoon. Spokane Transit limited service to critical routes.
Residents were advised to stay inside, and to wear face masks or bandanas when they ventured out in the coming days. There was a mask shortage at first, but eventually the city secured a shipment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), distributing them to citizens at fire stations.
City officials told people to avoid driving on main streets so truck crews could spray the ash off. Driving was nearly impossible anyway; even slow-moving vehicles kicked up swirling clouds of the fine powder that obscured views.
School in most districts around the region was canceled for the next week. A few college graduation ceremonies were postponed or canceled. An emergency order issued by Spokane County Sheriff Larry Erickson ordered all non-essential businesses closed for several days, a decision that upset some residents (a familiar reaction to the current pandemic disaster).
"The thrill was gone out of sitting at home and indications popped up all over Eastern Washington's most populous county that businessmen and the public don't consider Mount St. Helens' ash an emergency at all," reads a front-page story in the May 21 edition of the Spokesman-Review.
Days into the regional cleanup efforts, Spokane City Council passed an ordinance requiring residents to clean the ash from their property within 10 days, or risk being fined. Crum doesn't recall anyone actually being fined for not meeting the deadline, but the potential encouraged swift citywide cleanup. An unexpected problem arose, however, when all the volcanic ash washed down storm drains resulted in a clogged mess. The city quickly reversed course on how to clean up, asking citizens instead to use their garbage bins.
"One of the odd things we discovered when cleaning up the dust — it was very fine and hard to pick up — is that someone had talked to someone else with a circus who said what they used to clean up dust was wet sawdust," Crum says. "So people were able to use wet sawdust to sweep up the ash."
Crum also remembers when President Jimmy Carter traveled west to meet with emergency responders at the mountain, stopping in Spokane on the way. Mayor Ron Bair wore what Crum describes as a "safari suit," rather than a traditional coat and tie, for the occasion.
"We thought he really ought to look like he was having a hard time," Crum recalls, laughing. "He went out to the airport to meet President Carter and convince him we needed some aid, but that we weren't too desperate, and he had a safari suit on."
At Deaconess hospital, where cardiac unit coordinator McGhee was unexpectedly stranded along with other hospital staff that Sunday afternoon, an early decision was made to shut down the entire facility's air circulation and cooling system.
"They ended up thinking the ash was going to come in through the air ducts, so they turned them off and it got very stuffy, very fast, and so hot," says McGhee, 29 at the time.
After the day shift clocked out, she says leadership decided everyone on the late shift would be the "last crew in here for we don't know how long," considering roads were near impassable and that, initially, any harmful effects of the volcanic ash weren't widely known.
"We slept on empty patient beds in shifts, and we had to work out showers and changing of clothes," she recalls. "It was kind of a fun time, but a little nerve-wracking because we just didn't know; it was the uncertainty of everything, and not knowing what was going to happen."
THE MAW OF THE BEAST
Few people who witnessed firsthand the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens that Sunday morning lived to tell the tale.
Dorothy and Keith Stoffel, two Spokane geologists, famously did.
The couple were in Yakima for a lecture and, wanting to see the active volcano for themselves, decided to charter a small plane and fly over the peak early May 18. They made several passes around the mountain, which had famously developed what observers called "the bulge," a large dome of fragmented rock and ice protruding 300 feet from the mountain's north side.
Just before 8:30 am, the Stoffels and pilot Bruce Judson were ready to head back to Yakima, feeling somewhat disappointed they hadn't seen any activity on the waking mountain. As they began to cross over St. Helens' one last time from the northwest, however, Dorothy Stoffel, then 30, noticed something unusual.
"The whole north side of the mountain began to vibrate, and it was like it became fluid," she recounts in an interview recorded by the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture for its 40th anniversary exhibit Mount St. Helens: Critical Memory.
"Keith described the north side of the mountain as churning," Stoffel continues. "I can remember seeing waves in the mountain. ...The next thing we observed was the north half of the mountain falling away right beneath our feet. As a geologist, you expect volcanoes to erupt; you don't expect mountains to fall apart."
Photos of the eruption's first few seconds captured by the Stoffels from the air that morning remain a rare and invaluable resource to understand and document the event. The plane barely evaded the mushrooming, thousand-degree volcanic blast cloud illuminated by lightning. Pilot Judson immediately diverted south, landing in Portland.
"The whole experience, I call it a double pool of emotions," Stoffel says. "One, being a professional geologist and the excitement of being a geologist and having a front-row seat to this phenomenal eruption. And having come within just seconds of dying. Those two emotions were just all wrapped into one experience."
Over the ensuing hours, retired National Guard Col. Gorton says the Guard began sending in helicopter crews to look for survivors.
"This was a really heroic effort, let me tell you," he says. "Some places where they landed, the dust was so intense that if it weren't for the experienced pilots, the helicopter would have crashed."
On the third day after the eruption, Gorton drove down to the Guard's emergency response base in Toledo, Washington, and met with the Lewis County sheriff to coordinate the recovery of bodies of those killed in the blast, 57 people total. Some were never found — including infamous evacuation holdout, 83-year-old Spirit Lake lodge owner Harry R. Truman, and 30-year-old U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist David Johnston — having been buried beneath tons of volcanic debris.
Gorton recalls flying up the mountain to witness the complete destruction.
"We landed up there on what was a former lake, and the ground was quivering and the dust was still coming out," he says. "Steam was still coming out of different places in the soil."
From Camp Murray, Gorton also oversaw the Guard's assistance with ash cleanup in Eastern Washington, including Spokane and the especially hard-hit cities of Ritzville and Moses Lake.
Years later, he and his wife Diane returned to Mount St. Helens, a National Volcanic Monument since 1982. He remembers being impressed by the significant natural renewal that's taken place decades since that catastrophic day.
"We went to the observation point, which is where David Johnston was killed by the explosion. We looked out over the area where I had seen all those trees that had fallen, and everything was now all green, and some of the trees were almost fully grown," Gorton recalls.
McGhee also visited Mount St. Helens years after it blew.
"The devastation was still there. You could see trees lying flat like toothpicks, but it's amazing how much it's grown back. Nature has done a really good job of bringing things back."
The former health-care worker sees parallels and contrasts in the human and natural responses to the regional geological disaster caused by the volcano, and the global biological disaster caused by the coronavirus. Forty years apart, one was arguably inevitable, the other perhaps preventable. Both caught humanity off guard, and time is the only conduit toward recovery.
"Obviously the toll and scale is different, but much of the fear and public reactions were the same," McGhee says. "It's a reminder that nature is a powerful force, but renewal is possible in time." ♦
MOUNT ST. HELENS QUICK FACTS
- Geologists began closely monitoring the mountain's reawakening after a 4.2 magnitude quake was recorded on March 20, 1980.
- The mountain's eruption was so destructive because it exploded laterally from its north flank after the initial landslide was triggered by a 5.1 magnitude quake at 8:32 am on May 18, 1980.
- A 110,000-acre protected area around the eruption's blast zone was established in 1982 as the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
- The mountain was named in 1792 by British explorer George Vancouver to honor a British ambassador to Spain, Alleyne FitzHerbert, the Baron St. Helens.
- Native tribes' names for the mountain reference its frequent eruptive activity. It's known as Lawetlat'la (One From Whom Smoke Comes) to the Cowlitz, and Loowit (Keeper of the Fire) to the Klickitat.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey
Although the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture remains closed to the public, its current exhibit Mount St. Helens: Critical Memory has been extended through Sept. 6. In the meantime, many pieces of the exhibit commemorating the eruption's 40th anniversary are moving online, including videos, photographs, historical reports, oral histories and a guided, virtual tour of the exhibit.
The museum's curator of history, Freya Liggett, says the MAC plans to continue collecting stories of those who experienced the 1980 eruption and its aftermath to add to its archives while the exhibit remains on display. The public can submit their Mount St. Helens memories at mshcriticalmemory.org.
The Spokane County Library District also plans to take a previously scheduled multi-branch exhibit on the eruption's anniversary online. On Monday, May 18, the library will post videos and photographs of artifacts on loan from the public on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, says librarian Corinne Wilson.
— CHEY SCOTT
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chey Scott remembers hearing unbelievable stories as a kid from her parents about Mount St. Helens' ash that fell across the region and completely darkened the sky that spring day. On a family road trip across the state one summer, she was also stunned to learn that some of that ash is still visible along I-90 in Central Washington. Besides writing about local history and culture, including a recent piece about Hanford's B Reactor, Chey is the Inlander's food and listings editor, and has been with the paper since 2012. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.