The best preparedness blogs out there
May 18th 1980. It was a day of terror, awe, and perseverance. It was a day of the unexpected. It was a day that claimed 57 lives. It was the day Mt. Saint Helen’s erupted.
Although I have verbally told the story many times, especially right after the event, this is the first time this has ever been put to paper or told in such detail. I hope that I am a good enough writer that it gives you some sense of being there but you have to remember this was an event like no other in modern history, so it is a bit hard to give comparisons.
I was living in a little town called Randle in Washington . It was a small town in the mountains of southwestern Washington State nestled between three large, what we thought were extinct, volcanos: Mt. Rainer, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Saint Helens. We had known for months that Mt. Saint Helens was going to erupt. It had started showing signs of activity and news stations were warning everyone to stay out of the area. I remember during this time when we would go to a town called Chehalis for groceries. On the way back there was a breath taking view of Mt. Saint Helens . Most of the terrain between us on the road back was flat giving us an unobstructed view of the mountain and with its smoking top it looked so majestic.
None of us had ever heard of an exploding or stratovolcano, well I am sure the scientists did, but there was no mention that I ever heard of the possibility of it exploding so I think the scientists were probably just as shocked as we were. I thought it would be like the volcanoes you see in Hawaii that spew lava for awhile and that’s about it. We were about 20 miles away and there where some rolling hills between us and the volcano so I figured I would be able to go to the top of one of these hills and watch the lava spew
On the morning of May 18th, I was in the groggy, lethargic state between being asleep and fully waking when I hear my wife get out of bed saying she thought her father (who also lived on the ranch) was leaving because she thought she heard a car rumble. When she reached the kitchen and looked out the window she let out a heart-stopping, blood-curdling scream that sounded like she was witnessing the end of the world, as I am sure she thought she was. It brought me straight up out of my bed and I ran to the kitchen to see what all the screaming was about. What I saw I will never forget for the rest of my life. It looked like the world was coming to an end. The sky was filled with very dark heavy clouds that were boiling and rolling towards us at a very high rate of speed with the biggest, thickest bolts of lightning I have ever seen. There is nothing I can compare it to. In one sense it was awesome, but in another, it was terrifying. What we later learned was that what we were witnessing half the mountain exploding over our heads but it looked like half the world. We were in the direct blast path, in fact, you could not have aimed it at us more precisely. I didn’t know what to think or what was happening but I grabbed our 8mm camera ( yeah, that’s how it was done in those days ) and ran up to my in-laws house to film what was going on. Imagine standing there watching this huge angry looking cloud enveloping the entire sky, your entire world. I now understand why natives felt it necessary to make sacrifices to volcanoes.You could feel the rumble of the mountain through the ground and in your chest as well as hear it. It was a low rumbling but yet very distinctive. There wasn’t another sound in the air or maybe I was so transfixed I didn’t hear any. While I was filming, ash was starting to fall from these huge black clouds and occasionally a twig and finally a rock landed at my feet about the size of a baseball. My father in-law looked at me with a shocked “did you hear that?” look on his face. We both looked down to see what caused the thud we just heard. Afraid that the next rock would hit us or a larger boulder would fall. We decided it was time to go inside. I remember standing on the porch just before going inside and looking at the horizon or what was left of it and it was just like the famous film that Dave Crockett (no not that Crockett this didn’t happen that long ago) made from a mountain top across from Mt. Saint Helens. The horizon was slowly disappearing as the ash cloud covered the entire sky
So after going inside we all sat in amazement pondering the situation when I noticed ash was beginning to creep into the house around the doors and windows. Not having any kind of like experience to draw on we didn’t have a clue of what to do except to try to seal all the cracks we could. It did little good, the ash was so fine I think it was literally coming through the walls. I remember very distinctly that it was becoming hard to breathe so we covered our mouths with t-shirts and at one point the ash was so thick we even had to get them wet in order catch more of the ash. Later, I went back out onto the porch to see how bad it was. I had a flashlight with me and I remember the beam from the light barely showing a foot or so out. The ash was that thick and heavy. It looked like a VERY heavy gray snow storm. We sat in the house for hours wondering what was going to happen. Were more rocks, maybe even boulders, going to come through the roof, were we going to die of asphyxiation? Not much was being said but we all knew what was on each other’s minds (was this it? Was this the end?) We had no idea what was to come. Try to imagine sitting in candlelight cut off from the world just witnessing what very much looked like the end of the world as we know it, not knowing what was coming next. My wife at the time even wrote a farewell letter explaining everything we were going through and saying her goodbyes. I really don’t recall how long it was before we saw the sky again, but when I went outside everything was covered in about 4 to 6 inches, as I recall, of heavy gray ash. It was kind of like when you wake up to find the first heavy snow of winter and everything is white only this was grey and eerie looking, everything was deathly quiet. Walking in it made me think that this must be what it’s like to walk on the moon. Every step was a fresh imprint on this new land that was deposited all around us with puffs of dust with every step.
It took weeks to clean up around the property as the dust was so fine it literally got into everything. We were lucky in the sense that we did not lose power for long so our food stayed cold and we had water. So the after effects were not bad as far as survival is concerned. It was a while before we got out and the stores were open so it was a good thing we always kept a large stock of food and water on the ranch, it could have easily been much worse.
This was an overwhelming experience for everyone there but especially my wife. She was insistent that we leave immediately and I mean immediately. As I recall it started the minute the sun came back out. Had she had her way all our belongings would probably still be there. I tried to assure her that the worst was over, as if I knew, but she would hear none of it. Looking back I can’t say as I blame her we had no idea and it was an overwhelming experience. I have witnessed many things in my life, I have traveled the world and seen a lot of awe-inspiring things. I am a scuba diver and explorer but nothing even comes anywhere near to holding a candle to what we witnessed that day. I consider myself a very lucky man to have been standing there witnessing the raw power of mother nature as it had never been seen before. It was totally awesome and admittedly a bit scary at the same time.