There are certain tragic events that are unforgettable and remain with you for the rest of your life. Just thinking about them brings every moment of the event like it is happening now.
One example for me is the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was in high school and the announcement that he had been shot was told to us by our principal over the PA system. A short time later the principal broadcast the live announcement by Walter Cronkite that President Kennedy had died. Classes were cancelled and we were sent out to the awaiting buses for the ride back to our neighborhoods.
May 18,1980 at 8:32 AM is a another date and time I will never forget. This passed week was the 37th anniversary of the massive eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Most people who lived in the Pacific Northwest then have their own stories to tell about how their life was affected by that event.
In previous articles I mentioned that I lived in Spokane, Washington back then. Now I will tell you my experience on that fateful day. First I need to give a little background information. My car radio was broken and I discussed the problem with the chief engineer at KREM-TV the Television station where I was the main weather anchor. I described what was wrong and he said it was just the tuner. He explained that all I would have to do is take the radio out of the car, order a new tuner, remove the old one, then put in the new one soldering more than a dozen wires to install it. I did the first two parts and then the tuner was delivered. I was planning on doing the work on Sunday (May 18th) after we came home from church.
The church wasn’t very far away from our house, but it did feel unusual not listening to music while I drove. That also meant we couldn’t hear any news of what was going on with the volcano. As we left the church I heard someone say “St. Helens” but I couldn’t hear the rest of what they said. We drove home, I changed clothes and placed old newspapers on the kitchen table to work on the radio. That is when the telephone rang. I answered it and it was the TV station’s news director, my boss, calling to tell me Mt. St. Helens erupted and that we were going to do a live half-hour program about it at 6:00 pm. I cleared the table, changed clothes and took off for work. Since I was the weatherman I took on the task of following the ash cloud as it progressed toward us and airing bulletins to warn the public to stay indoors because the ash is potentially dangerous to inhale or get in your eyes.
The ash cloud arrived at 4:00 pm and dropped between a quarter-of-an-inch to half-of-an-inch of ash on us. It was very strange to see and hear. The ash fell like flakes of snow in a heavy snowfall. It seemed to absorb all sound except for the sound of the ash as it touched the ground. I thought I was being so smart for setting out a couple of Mason jars to catch some of the ash. That was not the case, however, they fell over. The way I collected the ash was in a Frisbie that my children left outside on the lawn. There were two kinds of ash. One was white and felt like talcum powder. The other was gray in color and was gritty like tiny grains of sand. Ritzville, Washington (53 miles SE of Spokane) received the most ash in the state with 4-6 inches covering the city.
The Spokane Transit Authority contacted their drivers when the ash fall started to call them back. Two of those buses were at the far end of their routes and took too long to return. The ash clogged the air intakes and filled the engines with enough ash to blow out the engines. Cars and trucks that were driven during the ash fall and for months afterwards had the grit of the ash in their engines that could be seen and felt on the oil dipstick.
We went on the air at 6:00 pm and I lead off with about 10 minutes of details about what to do and that staying away from the ash was important. I also knew more about the recent history of Mt. St. Helens because was taking meteorology/geography courses at Eastern Washington University and my professor was a great source of knowledge on the subject. One of his friends was the head of the school’s Geology Department and after each trip to the mountain, beginning back when the first tremors were registered, he would tell my professor what they learned. My professor, Dr. Bob Quinn, was nice enough to tell me everything he learned from his friend. When we finished the special program someone came to a startling discovery. The person who usually made sure every news program we aired was recorded (legal reasons and archiving) had so much work to do that he never started a tape. That means what in my opinion was just about the best work I and our whole team ever performed wasn’t saved and was gone forever. It would have been nice for us to see what we did that day.
Worldwide Mt. St. Helens had been called ” The Mt. Fuji of the West” because it looked so much like Mt. Fuji in Japan that they could have been sisters if not twins. The initial eruption was heard by many people in Spokane, but not me, who describe it to me as a large bang unlike anything they had heard before.
The combination of the explosive heat blast and pressure wave that spread out from the North face of the mountain caused the death of 57 people and the destruction of 230 square miles of trees that were flattened.
There also was a mud flow that sent melted snow, mud and debris down the mountain into the Tootle River and Spirit Lake. Harry Truman lived along Spirit Lake and refused to evacuate. It has been estimated that he is buried under at least 50 feet under the solid debris flow.
One name that will be remembered with a direct connection to the May 18th eruption is David Johnston. He was the United States Geological Survey (USGS) volcanologist who, while manning his observation post 6 miles from Mt. St. Helens, witnessed the eruption and immediately radioed a report saying “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” He was killed by the blast, but his body was never recovered. His location was thought to be a safe distance away from the mountain. Remnants of his USGS trailer were found in 1993. The Vancouver USGS office was renamed on the first eruption’s anniversary in 1982 becoming the ” David. A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory.”
The Mt. St. Helens Volcanic Monument, including the area in and around the mountain, was established August 27, 1982 by President Ronald Reagan. One of the facts I learned years ago is that the mountain has over it’s past had an average active phase of about 50 years before going dormant again. That means that potentially we have at least 13 more years for Mt. St. Helens to continue being a threat to life and property in Washington and Oregon. That is if the volcano follows it’s past history. Don’t forget Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier are both dormant volcanoes (only sleeping not extinct) and recently tremors were recorded under Mt. Hood.
Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.