The angry-looking ash cloud billowing above Mount St. Helens is one of the most iconic images in state history.
And it is etched in our collective memory.
Those living in the state of Washington at the time of the May 18, 1980, eruption all have a where-were-you-when-it-blew moment. Here are some of them.
Volcanologist Don Swanson (’60 Geology) agreed to man the mountain’s forward observation post for a few days to replace a geologist who needed to travel out of town. But Swanson himself needed a replacement for a night—that night.
David A. Johnston, a younger U.S. Geological Survey colleague, agreed to fill in so Swanson could meet with a visiting graduate student from Germany. That Saturday was sunny and warm, and they took measurements of the volcano. Johnston actually went down into the crater to check gas levels. But he wasn’t particularly looking forward to spending the night near the mountain. “He, more than the rest of us, probably had a better understanding of how explosively Mount St. Helens could erupt,” Swanson says.
Swanson was slated to take over the post at the Coldwater II camp the next day. Sunday morning, he was at the U.S. Forest Service building in Vancouver readying for the trip when monitoring instruments began showing major activity. He ran to the radio to call Johnston. There was no answer.
By then, Swanson later learned, Johnston had already reported the eruption, transmitting “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”
Within an hour, Swanson was documenting the cataclysm from an airplane: “As soon as we lifted off the ground I could see that the top of the volcano was missing. I could see the giant plume. When we got up closer, I could see the mud flows on the south side of the volcano, but it was obvious most of the activity was north. We couldn’t get around to see it. It was simply out of the question. There was so much ash in the air—and lightning. We spent about three hours doing figure-eights on the south side of the mountain. The eruption increased in intensity around noon, and we were able to chronicle that. It was a front-row seat. It was such a powerful event that was happening, yet it was soundless. We couldn’t hear anything. It was like watching a silent movie. It was certainly the most unusual experience I had in my career. The movies that we took and the observations that we made have been important in analyzing what happened.”
The next day, Swanson again visited the volcano again by air—this time via helicopter. He spotted a blue Datsun on Spud Mountain in the blast zone. The crew tried to see if there were any survivors, but couldn’t land in the ash. Just then, a military helicopter came by and lowered a rescuer by cable. “We watched him put a marker on the car,” Swanson says, noting the sign indicated he had found a body. “It turns out that was Jim Fitzgerald (a friend who was working on his PhD in volcanology at the University of Idaho), and I had no idea that he had been in the area. I always wondered what my reaction would have been if we landed and I walked over and saw him. I’m forever grateful that there was too much ash in the air for us to land.”
Swanson, now 81 and recently retired after a long career studying volcanoes—particularly Kilauea—knew three people who died on Mount St. Helens: Johnston, Fitzgerald, and Harry Truman, owner and caretaker of Mount St. Helens Lodge. Truman had refused to leave the lodge despite evacuation orders, becoming a sort of folk hero in the couple of months leading up to the eruption. “I have a soft spot in my heart for Harry Truman,” Swanson says. “He was very good to us (geologists). He let us put instruments in his cabin. He was known for his colorful language. I didn’t learn any new words from Harry Truman, but I did learn new combinations of words.”
Truman’s body was never found. Neither was Johnston’s. In 1993, highway crews recovered remnants of his USGS trailer in more than 4 feet of volcanic ash. Johnston’s death deeply affected Swanson, who decided to focus his career on better understanding eruptions in order to prevent similar tragedies. “I think about it almost every day,” he says.
Two years ago, in the spring and summer of 2018, when Kilauea began oozing magma, destroying hundreds of homes, Swanson watched from a shuttered hotel near the rim of the volcano. But, he says, likely because of what he experienced at Mount St. Helens four decades before, “I just couldn’t bring myself to go into the area where the volcano was causing problems.”
Don Llewellyn was fishing with his best buddy from high school that weekend. “I was in college, but I was not at WSU,” says Llewellyn, a statewide livestock specialist for WSU Extension. He’s worked for WSU since 2011.
Llewellyn grew up wheat farming and ranching in Wilbur, and had “always been an avid fisherman.” One week back from his studies at Oklahoma State University, he and his friend went up to McGinnis Lake—one of their favorite fishing holes—northeast of Coulee Dam. “We took his camper, and we got up there the night before—May 17th—in time to fish in the evening, which was one of our favorite times to fish,” Llewellyn says. “I don’t remember a whole lot of details about the fishing, but we caught some fish.”
The next morning, “we went out just after daylight in a small boat with a small outboard motor on it. We were slow-trolling out there for trout. The fishing was fairly slow. It was a very calm, quiet morning—water’s like glass, peaceful. All of a sudden, we hear this booming, rumbling sound. There was always lots of construction and blasting going on at Coulee Dam, and I remember telling my friend that people over there aren’t going to be very thrilled with them blasting at 8:30 on Sunday morning. The rumbling stopped, and we figured the blasting had stopped.”
The fishing hadn’t picked up. So, the friends decided to call it quits and head back home. They brought the boat out of the water around 9 a.m., and it was maybe 10 a.m. by the time they were all loaded up to go. When they arrived at his friend’s house—he lived on a ranch about ten miles north of Wilbur—his mom came out and said, “Hey, did you hear? The mountain blew.”
By the time Llewellyn’s mom came to pick him up about a half hour later, “it looked like the most horrible rainstorm was on its way. I’ve been in Tornado Alley; when you see thunderstorms coming that have tornadoes, they’re black and scary, and that’s what this looked like. The sky was just black.”
Within an hour or so of being back at home, “it was dark as night, and the streetlights came on, and then that fine ash started to drop. We didn’t know what to do. We had livestock that needed to be taken care of. We had to be outside, and we wore masks. Our concern was: what’s this going to do to our equipment, our engines? We did not run anything that wasn’t totally necessary. We did not have any livestock die because of the ash. We had ash all through the whole season. But, that summer, the knives on the sickle bars on the combines—they usually last about two weeks during harvest—well, they lasted about two days. The ash was that abrasive.”
Llewellyn remembers hearing on the news about Harry Truman, “the guy near the mountain that didn’t want to move. They made a movie about him.”
Overall, he says, “it was quite an experience. It was a good thing we left the lake when we did or we’d have been stuck up there. If we hadn’t come home early, if the fishing was good and we fished for another four hours or so, we might have got stuck for several days.”
A historian at WSU Pullman and later editor-in-chief of WSU Press, Lindeman (’69 Poli. Sci., ’73 MA History) saw “what looked like a dark thunderhead” on the horizon late Sunday morning from his home in Pullman. Within two hours, he says in the book In the Path of Destruction: Eyewitness Chronicles of Mount St. Helens, published in 2014 by WSU Press, “a broad gray blanket approached like a massive wave on the ocean. The edge of gray turmoil thirty miles away was sharp against blue sky. The cloud boiled tens of miles wide. It was the most spectacular natural phenomenon I’d ever seen. Wouldn’t you know I was out of film.”
The cloud “blotted out the sun and cast deep shadow. The air cooled. I put on a jean jacket, strung a hammock, and lay on it to watch. … As I lay in the hammock ash had been falling too finely to feel even on my eyes. The air smelled acidic.”
Monday morning, “We woke up to a land half an inch in ash like snow. … I drove toward campus. A coming car raised a cloud and I couldn’t see. I stopped, hoping not to be rear-ended. … Tracks of beetles, other insects, field mice, songbirds, and pheasant marked the ash. Honeybees with one wing working left circular patterns and died. The ash recorded life you don’t usually notice.”
Part of the U.S. Geological Survey team conducting volcano research in the Cascades, Richard Waitt was among the first to arrive at Mount St. Helens following the volcano’s early rumblings in March 1980. He spent more than thirty years gathering eyewitness accounts of the eruption for his book, In the Path of Destruction. In it, he describes flying over the mountain May 20, 1980, two days after the blast. “In the terrible panorama the geologist in me sees raw beauty,” he writes. “Millions of big trees are down; behind cliffs stand broken snags. A lumpy landslide reaches far down the North Fork. Ashy logs cover Spirit Lake. On a topographic map I sketch its new shoreline: two hundred feet above the old.”
Kevin Arthur Penrod
Kevin Arthur Penrod (’81 Comm.) submitted this short essay for the magazine’s Fall 2018 issue featuring WSU in 100 Words: “The word spread like lightning. St. Helens had erupted. I sat on the roof of my apartment gazing westward. A wall of darkness moved steadily toward us. It grew quiet. The birds and animals settled down. Total silence. It was noon. Snowing. It was May. It was eighty degrees. The ashflakes were giant and gray. Soon the dark was in totality. It was thrilling. This was history. I spent that day and night and the next with friends and fellow students. We drank, we laughed, we marveled at the sight. We had survived St. Helens. The memory will survive me.”
Don A. Dillman
Don A. Dillman was in Lewiston—roller-skating for the first time in 20 years—when he learned Mount St. Helens had erupted. Around 12:30 p.m., after an hour of skating along the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers with his wife and two kids, he “noticed that the western sky was turning a deep Iowa blue—our family expression for what the sky looks like before a spring thunderstorm,” Dillman writes in After Mount St. Helens: Seven Gray Days in May. He penned the final paragraph of the 35-page paper one week to the hour after the eruption. The Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections at WSU Libraries keeps a copy of his detailed account of the week following the blast.
A WSU faculty member since 1969, Dillman—now a Regents Professor and deputy director for Research and Development in the Social and Economic Sciences Research Center—was a sociology professor and chairperson of the Department of Rural Sociology when Mount St. Helens erupted. His wife, Joye, now a professor emeritus in the department of Human Development, was then an assistant professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies.
The drive home from Lewiston gave them “a front-row seat” to the region’s ash fall. “The western horizon was pitch black. Yet the far eastern sky remained an undisturbed blue … It would have been easy to imagine that we were on another planet. The eeriness of this totally unfamiliar sight made me think for a fleeting second about how comforting, by comparison, the familiar thunder, lightning, and wind of a midwestern storm would be,” Dillman writes.
In Pullman, they stopped to buy film, then went home and turned on the TV to wait for news. At some point, Dillman writes, “I stick my head out the patio door, take a whiff, and decide I’m not going anywhere for anything tonight. The smell? A little like holding your head inside of a cold fireplace while somebody stirs the ashes.”
The next morning, Dillman surveys his “silky smooth driveway” and gingerly takes a few steps, taking care to notice the tracks his Converse All-Stars leave in the ash which appears to be nearly half-an-inch thick. “I wonder if Neil Armstrong had this much fun making footprints on the moon,” he writes. Calls start coming in. Meetings are canceled. Campus is closed. Dillman decides to shovel the driveway. “A surprise—the dark gray ash is covered with a lighter gray dust.”
Day three, Dillman sweeps ash from the roof of his house with a wide-sweep broom. Day four, he goes back up to finish the job. He also makes a milk run, walking a half-mile to the grocery store. “It’s hard to refrain from shaking my fist at the driver who zooms by me at 30 mph,” he writes. Day five, rain turns streets a “milky white color.” Day six, campus reopens. “My office is gritty, and before I can attack the stack of papers on my desk, it is necessary to dust each one of them. I wonder if there is a way to shut off the forced-air circulation system …
“As this first day back to work progresses, the mood of the campus gradually changes, from elation to apprehension. Student health physicians report being overrun by patients with similar complaints—a dryness of the throat that progresses into stuffiness, headaches and irritation in the chest. … By mid-afternoon, I hear coughing every minute or so, and a few people coughing persistently.”
Day seven, “A friend calls to tell us about problems in the dormitories—students are becoming hysterical over the fear of ash. I learn of parents of young children buying airplane tickets to send them to Grandma’s house. … Our effort to reestablish normalcy continues.”
Edward Lee Lamoureux
Edward Lee Lamoureux (’80 MA Comm.) is a professor in the Department of Communication and Department of Interactive Media at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. He wrote this reflection:
Spring 1980 brought both planned and unanticipated changes. After spending two and a half years out of graduate school—with most of that time working at Moscow’s restaurant/bar/disco P.W. Horseapples—I decided to return to WSU to complete the master’s degree. I had no additional coursework to take; I merely had to register for three hours of thesis credit, collect data in support of writing a thesis, then successfully author and defend the document. We quickly planned an in-house research event that provided conversational data for analysis. I ran the event, collected the data, did the analysis, and wrote the thesis all in one semester. I thereby qualified for the master’s degree in time to walk in the upcoming May ceremony. I invited my parents to drive up and attend the graduation; instead, God, Mother Nature, and/or the universe intervened.
Around 11 a.m. May 18, 1980, I looked out of my Valley View Apartment manager’s window and noticed that the sky to the west was darkening. The local paper had not predicted stormy weather and the approaching clouds and sky seemed ominously black. Before noon, the sky over the entire Palouse was darkened and dirt descended from the sky like so much blizzard-gray snow. Radio and television broadcasts soon identified the culprit as ash-fall from a massive eruption of Mount St. Helens. Pullman received amounts between the four inches recorded at Yakima and the half inch recorded in Spokane.
While there was no mass panic there was massive confusion as it took days for scientific information to filter to the general population. Initially, experts, including scientists at WSU, were unsure of the composition of the ash or of its potential danger to humans or to physical systems such as machinery, automobiles, and plumbing/sewer systems.
I was very unclear as to my responsibilities as an apartment manager during this natural disaster. At one point on the first day, I donned a rolled-up handkerchief, as a mask, and safety glasses and attempted to remove the ash from our walkways (emulating my behavior after heavy snowfalls when I’d shoveled snow off the walks before the plows came by to clear the parking lot). The ash was about as easy to move as wet concrete; I quickly gave up. I called my wife-to-be, Cheryl, as soon as the phone lines were open and we agreed that I would not attempt to drive to her apartment in Moscow until we were better informed about the risks to driving cars in the undiagnosed muck.
I called Long Beach and told the folks that they should cancel their planned trip north. In the first place, we had no idea whether the school would go through with the graduation scheduled for the coming weekend. Further, no one knew when or whether the roads would be clear or what the travel advisories would recommend. We all hunkered down for a week’s worth of scrutinizing available media for information about our situation. The eruption spread more than five million tons of ash over more than 22,000 square miles of real estate, and Pullman/Moscow were close enough to see significant amounts of ash.
Once the scientific community determined that the ash was not poison, would not damage vehicles, and posed health risks only to those with pre-existing respiratory ailments, WSU rescheduled the graduation ceremonies for one week later than originally planned. Officials at school and in Pullman worked feverishly to clean up as much of the mess as possible within the two weeks’ time between the eruption and the ceremonies. A lot of ash remained on the ground as well as in most crevices and on every available surface; it took months to collect the material as there was no way to thin the stuff down. One was, after all, pushing around small rock particles. Trying to wash it away resulted in mounds of cementlike sludge while sweeping it raised great clouds of eye and throat-choking dust.
When I headed for Seattle a month or so later, the ash still heavily covered almost every street, road, and patch of farmland across the entire five-and-half-hour drive west, with the thickness increasing as one got closer to the Cascade Range. Without over-dramatizing the affair, the master’s degree graduation at WSU struck me as one of the most depressing celebratory events I ever attended. Because of the eruption, neither Cheryl nor my parents were there. Most graduates experienced similar loneliness as friends and family stayed away from Pullman in droves. Further, my future was clouded: The master’s degree seemed transitional rather than terminal—and, of course, it was. A week after the environmental calamity, I was still not clear as to how much more clean-up work I would face. That turned out to be a misplaced anxiety because large trucks and industrial crews, public and private, soon took over the cleanup effort. Fortunately, my personal life was also soon favorably sorted out. Cheryl and I wed in July 1981 and headed off to Eugene, Oregon, for the PhD program in Rhetoric and Communication.
WSU’s yearbook features a story with the headline—complete with an exclamation point—referring to Pullman as the “ash hole of the West.” This excerpt comes from pages 18 and 19: “The most lasting (effect) of the volcano was the ash which left everyone attempting to figure out how to clean up the mess. Experts in the Moscow-Pullman area estimated that the fallout amounted to eight tons per acre, and that is 300 miles from the blast area.
“The ash, gritty and very fine, got into everything. Car engines stopped, people had a hard time breathing and daily life ground to a halt. … President Glenn Terrell gave up four days of college for 16,000 plus students and then ordered classes to start again. The Daily Evergreen, a student newspaper, continued to publish and other needed employees manned their posts. The people who did venture outside were advised to wear mouth and nose protection.
“Terrell, after meeting with experts of all kinds, allowed students to apply for emergency medical clearance to leave school and over 3,600 eventually left. Many students thought that the mass exodus had more to do with getting out of final tests rather than fear of the ash.
“Mount St. Helens put Washington in the news for more than two weeks as national media and scientists rushed to the volcano. Time magazine stated: ‘In Pullman (pop. 21,000) students from Washington State University jammed the Barley and Hops tavern for “eruption specials”—pitchers of $1 beer. Other students held end of the world parties—one lasted three days non-stop.’”
May 20, 1980
Three volcano-related stories make up the cover of this edition of WSU’s student newspaper. None have bylines. One comes from the Associated Press. The top-of-the-fold headline reads: “Volcano’s ash fallout brings city to standstill.” According to that story, emergency shelter for up to 200 people had been set up at Lincoln Middle School. “State and federal relief for Pullman is being sought by Mayor Pete Butkus, who is asking for emergency dust removal equipment, medical supplies, and breathing filters. … Campus safety personnel have barricaded traffic flow at six locations to restrict cars from entering university grounds. City fire crews and army reserve units began hosing down downtown streets Monday morning, but were forced to abandon the project when water supplies became low. The possibility of ash hardening into a cement-like substance in the sewer lines also became evident. Butkus said in order to ease cleanup operations, citizens should treat the dust like light snow and shovel it from their walks into street gutters. … Both campus and city departments have advised people to stay indoors and drive as little as possible.”
May 21, 1980
Four volcano-related stories make up the cover. One, by Brian Dirks (’82 Comm.), discusses the city’s cleanup effort. Dirks writes, “Mayor Pete Butkus is asking citizens to help with city ash cleanup operations. In return for the favor the city will not charge for any extra water used. Although it did not meet yesterday because of the dust, the Pullman City Council informally agreed yesterday to charge water customers either this month’s or last month’s bill, whichever is lower. … Butkus said residents should sweep the ash from their sidewalks and driveways into the street in front of their homes. Then they should sprinkle the ash in the gutters and hose off all plants and lawns. However, the mayor said should be run for no more than 10 minutes to save water.”
On page three, an unbylined news brief is titled “Footprints in ash lead to suspect.” The first two lines read: “He went thataway. Pullman police arrested a man Monday for third degree theft after someone followed the man’s footprints in the dust from a car that had been burglarized to the man’s apartment.”
Among the 30 people stranded in Pullman because of the ash are 18 members of the Martin Luther King Singers from Fort Lewis. The singers were staying in fourth-floor guest rooms in the CUB and had come to town to participate in “the first annual spring gospel extravaganza, sponsored by the Black Christian Fellowship … ‘Although we are stuck here, we are having a good time,’ said staff sergeant Samuel Bethea. Sergeant First Class Leonard Smith said his five children are alone on the other side of the mountains. His two eldest daughters, 18 and 15, are switching school days to take care of the younger children. The choir must also contend with a $23 a day rental fee for a van it rented for the trip.”
May 30, 1980
This is the last edition of the 1979-1980 academic year. An unbylined story on page nine says, “Mayor Pete Butkus says the city, in his opinion, is out of the emergency stage and into the nuisance stage of cleaning up the volcanic fallout.” An unbylined brief on page 12, the last page of the paper, notes that only one of the 28 outside conventions scheduled to use University facilities during the summer has canceled due to uncertainty over the ash: the statewide 4-H youth convention.
Pete A. Butkus
He had just finished spraying weed killer on thistles growing in a lot near his house when he looked up and saw that a storm must be on its way. A neighbor was passing by, and, Pete Butkus recalls, “I said, ‘Oh darn, look at that cloud.’ He said, ‘Oh no, haven’t you heard? Mount St. Helens erupted this morning.’ And I thought, why haven’t I been told?”
Butkus (’70 Crim. Just., ’85 MA Ed.) was the 31-year-old newly elected mayor of Pullman. He took over the office in January 1980 and served until May 1986, about halfway through his second term, when he left to become executive director of the Public Works Board in Olympia. The day of the eruption, he says, “I kept in touch with the police dispatcher who relayed reports that I-5 was closed, I-90 was closed, and cattle were dying throughout Eastern Washington. Only two of those things turned out to be true.”
Butkus called a directors’ meeting Monday morning. An emergency speed limit of 10 mph was enacted. And, that evening, wearing a surgical-type mask around his neck, he appeared on a special broadcast of KWSU, anchored by “Voice of the Cougs” and now-mayor Glenn Johnson. “There were obviously health concerns,” Butkus says. “We tried to keep people from breathing the stuff. You saw everything from masks to bandanas. A few students called me, and they had asthma. I remember kind of talking them through it: stay inside, wear a mask if you go outside, call your doctor. Basically, limit your exposure to this stuff.”
On May 22, 1980, Butkus flew with two county administrators on a chartered flight from Lewiston to Portland to attend a meeting with President Jimmy Carter, Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, and other local and state officials in Vancouver. “We got there a little late,” Butkus says. “I think we came the farthest. The meeting had already started, and we were in the very back. At one point during the meeting, Gov. Ray stood up and asked for federal aid. What specifically, Carter wanted to know. And she held out her palm and hit it with her index finger. ‘M-O-N-E-Y,’ she said. It was, at best, disrespectful and, at worst, obnoxious. It was typical Dixy.”
Butkus had “rather short notice” to prepare to meet the president. But, before he left, he had taken time to fill an empty peanut butter jar with ash. As the meeting ended, he presented the ash-filled jar as a gift to the president. “He opened the jar and put his finger in it, rubbed it between his finger and his thumb, and gave a little grimace,” Butkus says. “It was such a fine powder that it felt oily or greasy to touch. I hadn’t thought about the fact he had been a peanut farmer, and I gave him ash in a peanut butter jar. It just worked out that way.”
Now, he guesses, that jar of ash “is probably somewhere in the basement or in archival storage.” By fall, the ash in Pullman “was pretty well cleaned up. The community really made a difference by going out and helping.” In the end, Butkus says, “it was a big event, but it was manageable. We survived.”
“I lived above City Hall, and I had been putting in a garden,” recalls Bill Marler (’82 Poli. Sci, English, Econ.) “It was a beautiful day, and I saw this giant cloud coming, and I thought it was a rainstorm. We didn’t have social media. I wasn’t listening to the radio. And it started getting darker and darker, and it was like, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’ It’s such a wild memory.”
A few hours later, “This stuff just came down. It was like it was snowing. I remember the sort of eerie quiet, like after a snowstorm. Sound got absorbed by it, and people were staying inside—like in a snowstorm. When I got up the next morning, it was like flour, but sandy, and it had settled. But as soon as cars started driving on it, it started billowing up. It was this powdery mess. From my vantage point on Pioneer Hill, as soon as cars got on the road, the dust just sort of rose above the buildings. It was a pretty freaky time.”
Marler served on WSU’s Board of Regents from 1998 to 2004. The managing partner of the Seattle law firm Marler Clark, he’s been recognized as the country’s top foodborne illness attorney. While still at WSU, he was elected to the Pullman City Council. At 19, he was the youngest person—and first student—to serve. “I went to class and then I went to committee meetings,” Marler says. “I had a very different kind of college experience. I wouldn’t change it. My kids ask, ‘Dad, what did you do in college?’ Well, I got three bachelor’s degrees. The reason I was able to get three bachelor’s degrees is I went to summer school. And, after I got elected, I hardly went home (to the west side). Pullman became my home. Most of the time I just stuck around Pullman.”
After Mount St. Helens erupted, he landed himself “in a bit of trouble, because I—on my own—contacted my mom who was a nurse in Kitsap County and asked if we could get like every mask she could find. On the first flight to land in Pullman after the explosion was a case filled with masks. I said somehow the city will pay for it. I had no authority to spend city money. I don’t remember exactly how they got handed out. I think they were primarily for students who wanted them, who were worried. Kids were understandably freaked out. Parents were calling from all over the place wondering what happened. It was crazy. It was crazy to think that this thing that happened 300 miles away was dumping inches of this powder on us all this way away—and even farther east than that.”
Marler was 20 when Mount St. Helens blew. “At that time,” he says, “Pete (Butkus) seemed old.” The young councilmember and the mayor met with then-President Glenn Terrell about whether the University was going to shut down—and, Marler says, “he wouldn’t do it. Terrell was really adamant: You didn’t shut down during snowstorms, and you’re not going to shut down during mountain explosions. A bunch of his deans were at the table, and they were all supportive of it. I remember trying to convince them to shut down. I gave Glenn so much grief. I made that guy miserable as a student, but then we became good friends and when he passed away I got a call from his wife and kids asking me to give the eulogy. I quoted the part from (Ernest Hemingway’s) Big Two-Hearted River about this fish getting caught. Glenn was one of those big fishes, a guy that everyone would remember.”
Recently, Marler’s been trying to find a photo from that May showing him hosing ash away. “I’ve got a bandana on my face. I’m standing on the corner of Main and Grand, and I’m washing down Main Street, washing the ash away. It might’ve been Monday or Tuesday after the eruption. I think I was just trying to be helpful. School wasn’t on. I had no classes. So it was probably better than sitting at home. There was a lot of discussion about what happens when you flush it down mains. Was it going to clog stuff up? It looked so much like cement. One thought was that it might, in fact, be like cement. I just remember how freaked out everybody was. It was quite the adventure. It took a long time to clean up the campus and the city. Over time, the ash just washed away, but there was dust around for months and months after the explosion.”
“Fortieth anniversary? Boy time does fly,” says Dan Flynn, the Colorado-based editor-in-chief of Bill Marler’s Food Safety News. He was the first employee of the website, founded ten years ago. He met Marler when he was running the Lewiston Morning Tribune’s Pullman bureau and—at least at first—aimed, as a journalist, to maintain a professional distance from the young politician. “During the school year, it was pretty easy. But, in summer, you’re working out at the same gym, and there’s just two of you there.” They’ve been friends for 42 years. And they hung out together the night before the eruption.
That weekend, Flynn and his wife, Victoria, were filling in as park rangers at Kamiak Butte County Park. They were helping out their friends, Whitman County Parks Director Mike Werner and his wife, Vivian, a local teacher, who were heading out of town. “We agreed to babysit the park for them,” Flynn says.
“The morning of the 18th was just incredibly beautiful—blue sky as far as you could see. I was out doing some campground cleaning, some maintenance, and Victoria came out and said, ‘Mount St. Helens blew up and it’s heading this way.’ Once news of the pending ash cloud was known, carloads of people from Pullman and elsewhere began arriving at Kamiak. There was a line of cars coming through the gate, just one after another. There were probably maybe three dozen carloads of people who were coming out with the idea that they were going to take the trails up to the highest point on the butte and they didn’t know what was going to happen but they wanted to watch it from there.”
Flynn called the sheriff’s office and was advised to close the park. So he and his wife set out on the trails to get the word to visitors. “By the time we got to the top, the ash was coming down. You went from sort of normal daylight to you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” says Flynn, who left his wife at the park and drove to town to start covering the story. “It was like a snowstorm. You lose complete ability to tell where the center line is. Finally, what I did was I opened the door and drove down the boundary line of the lane—that you could see occasionally. I followed that line and did eventually get into Pullman. But that was the last I had any ability to drive that car. It was totally trashed after that. It was a good year for auto shops that year.”
The next day was sunny and clear. “It was another beautiful day on the Palouse,” Flynn says. But, “you had this substance on the ground, like snow. The big questions were: was the University going to remain open at all during the week, and what about this ash stuff? Is it hurting anybody?”
Flynn followed the story for weeks after that, and, “every day the ash got a little bit less.” The next year, his wife finished graduate school at the University of Idaho and he got a job covering business in Seattle.
Glenn Johnson remembers seeing posters touting Mount St. Helens as a Washington state destination when he picked up his parents at the Spokane airport earlier that spring. They were coming to see his new home, and the volcano “was a tourist attraction.” He moved to Pullman from Sacramento in summer 1979 and went on to become “the Voice of the Cougs,” announcing men’s basketball and football games for 40 years and counting, and to serve as the mayor of Pullman, now in his fifth four-year term.
He was only in his second semester of teaching broadcast journalism at WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication when Mount St. Helens erupted. “We had no warning whatsoever,” he recalls. “This was a new adventure for all of us. I think it was milk and beer that were the biggest concerns at the time. That’s what the stores were running out of.”
Monday morning, he walked to campus. Classes were canceled midway through his 8 a.m. broadcast class. And that’s when he encouraged students to get to work. “I said, ‘We’ve got an opportunity here. This is a huge story. You’ve got all day off now, so let’s go do something. Let’s learn from this.’ And they were all for it.”
First, he says, “I had to go down and convince the general manager of KWSU that we were capable of putting on a half-hour TV news program about ash.” Also, “we needed to borrow a camera.”
Johnson stressed that Dave Wike (’80 Comm.) had recently completed an internship at KING 5 in Seattle and “knew what he was doing.” As for the camera, the plan was “to bag it and make sure it’s protected and shoot from inside the car—and off we went.”
He and his students started brainstorming angles and sources for interviews: health, agriculture, public safety. They also went outdoors to shoot B-roll of the campus and try to get interviews with people on the street. “That didn’t last long because”—despite their precautions—“the ash got into the camera’s telephoto zoom mechanism,” Johnson says. “We had to regroup. We couldn’t continue to shoot outside because of the ash. So we decided to bring the interviewees into the studio. Then we went on-air live. I anchored, and we cut to the different interviews. Students”—including the late longtime KOMO 4 anchor Kathi Goertzen (’80 Comm.)—“got a heck of an experience out of that. Everybody pitched in. We all had a blast. And we got a lot of help.”
Johnson credits the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine for quickly providing information and sources for the newscasts. “A week later we did a follow-up what-have-we-learned show,” he says. “People were still trying to figure out the best way to handle the ash. We still may home some in a container some place.”
Ten or fifteen years later, when he was prepping for some basement renovations, Johnson opened the cover to a chimney—“we didn’t have a stove hooked up to it,” he explains—“and ash just fell out. You see it sometimes on the side of Highway 26 and Highway 195. There’s a layer of ash still. People can dig down a certain level in their yards in some places and still see a layer of ash.”
He started at the station shortly after graduation on a full-time but temporary assignment. Today, Dave Wike (’80 Comm.) is the longest-serving TV photojournalist at KING 5 in Seattle.
He’s traveled all over the world on assignment—from Russia and China to Iraq—and remembers flying over Eastern Washington on his way to embed with U.S. troops in 2003 at the same time his wife was driving to Pullman to attend Mom’s Weekend for their daughter Sara (Wike) Hall (’06 English, ’07 Ed.), then a freshman. “I think I was there for every one of Sara’s Dad’s Weekends,” he says. But, “I’ve been back mostly for work,” covering the Apple Cup, among other things.
Wike was studying for finals on the back patio of his apartment in the Nez Perce complex on the northeast side of campus when he learned Mount St. Helens blew. “I remember it so vividly,” he says. “It was blue-sky gorgeous. I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is just a really nice day,’ and then I noticed clouds were coming in this absolutely straight line. (My roommates and I) started talking about how weird it was. Somehow, somewhere somebody heard it was because of the volcano. And we took that as an excuse to have a barley pop. We went to the top of one of the water towers that was near the Nez Perce and had a beer up there. At that time, it was just kind of cloudy.”
Wike had to the get back down for a photo shoot in the Fine Arts Building. “I couldn’t tell you how long I was in there, maybe an hour or two,” he says. “When I walked out of the building, it was raining ash. I was kind of a car guy, and I knew that was not a good thing.”
He and a friend made a quick run to the grocery store after that. “The first things they ran out of were beer and Twinkies,” Wike says. “Everybody was kind of campus-bound. They sold out of beer and couldn’t get any in because the highways were closed. It was the strangest weather we’d ever seen.”
The next day, the blue sky was back and, Wike says, “as clear as can be. Everything else was gray and black and white. The ash just took all the rest of the color away. It was such a strange scene. It was such a contrast; it was this pretty day, but this wild gray ash was everywhere. If anybody moved or a car went by, the stuff just got stirred up.” He went to class, but “things pretty much shut down—as they should have, because it was just so hard to get around.”
Seattle TV stations called in, asking for footage of the ash. That’s the main thing Wike remembers about the rest of that day—“probably because it was such a thrill for me.” Back then, Murrow’s broadcast equipment was dated. “We were using stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Wike says. Athletics had modern gear, and he was able to borrow a newer camera to shoot B-roll. “They opened this case, and here’s this fantastic tube camera, and they hooked me up—basically because of my (internship) experience in Seattle. I thought it was so awesome. I don’t know if it was Channel 13 or Channel 7, but we ended up feeding out stuff to the west side.”
He laments he didn’t return the camera in the same condition. “It seems to me that I taped a garbage bag around it,” he says. “It was a really nice camera, but it wasn’t sealed in any way. The ash got into the lens and into the viewfinder, and I just felt awful that I may have wrecked that camera.”
“There I was, focused on completing my last month at WSU, and Mount St. Helens erupts,” the late Kathi Goertzen (’80 Comm) recalls in a 2002 story in Washington State Magazine. “I spent the next few weeks basically living at the KWSU studio, not only reporting the news aspects, but also interviewing local farmers about the ash that had covered Eastern Washington and what affect that would have on their crops. I guess you could say that was my first ‘breaking news’ story, and after that, I had it in my blood.” (from the WSM archives)
David Jarvis was a graduate student, assisting music classes as well as performing in and assistant conducting WSU’s Percussion Ensemble. That Sunday, members were rehearsing for their spring concert—their last performance of the school year. “I walked out to go to my car, and I looked up, and there was this huge black cloud coming over the top of Bryan Hall,” says Jarvis (’81 MA Music). “So I turned around and went back in to get my umbrella thinking it was going to pour rain.”
By the time he got to his car, he says, “you could tell it didn’t look like a regular cloud. I turned on the radio, and they were announcing that Mount St. Helens had erupted. By this time, it was like one or two o’clock. Of course, it was like midnight. It was like somebody took the dimmer switch and turned out the lights. The birds stopped chirping. You started smelling the stuff in the air, the ash. It was like sulfur.”
Jarvis, now the coordinator of percussion studies and a professor of music at WSU, was living in Moscow then. “It took me like two hours to get home,” he says. “It was very bizarre. I got some wet paper towels and put them over my face so I wouldn’t breathe in the stuff. I’d drive a little ways, and then another car would come by and it would white out. It was almost like talcum powder. I’d slam on the brakes, stop, and wait for it to settle down before I could go again.”
The next morning, he says, “it looked like you were on the moon.” Listening to the radio, he learned many businesses and roads were closed—and WSU remained open. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But we (he and his carpool buddy) were dutiful grad students, and we figured we had better get to school. I said, ‘Let’s stop at Napa Auto Parts and pick up a few air filters’ so we don’t ruin the car. The guy at Napa said, ‘Where are you going in this ash?’ And we just decided to give up on that. We went to breakfast at the Garden Lounge. By then, it was 8:40 or something, and they had advised (then-president) Glenn (Terrell) to cancel class.”
The work wasn’t done, though. The professor of the jazz history class he was assisting was stuck in Los Angeles—along with half of the class’s final papers—because of the ash. So, Jarvis says, “I ended up having to deal with all of the problems of the class. There were some 180 or 200 people in the class. And all these kids—one after another—are handing me notes to be excused. (The school) had decided that whatever grade you have at this point is the grade you’re going to get.”
Jarvis went to work calculating their grades, and the Percussion Ensemble concert was postponed for a week or two. After earning his master’s degree, he taught music elsewhere for six years before returning to WSU as a professor in 1987. He served as the principal timpanist with the Washington-Idaho Symphony until his retirement from the orchestra in 2006. He was also the principal percussionist with the Oregon Coast Music Festival Orchestra for 15 years until retiring from that organization in 2012. He’s the creator of WSU’s popular course “The History and Social Analysis of Rock Music” and a published composer whose percussion works have been performed all over the world.
During those ash-filled days in 1980, Jarvis remembers “wearing masks as much as possible. That stuff was getting on your clothes, sometimes in your mouth. It was gritty—almost like getting sand in your mouth. It was surreal.”
Rahul Ray (’80 PhD Chem.) is a professor of medicine and research professor of biophysics and physiology at Boston University School of Medicine. He wrote the reflection Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Goodbye to Wazzu and Mount St. Helens, which was posted on ImmigrantBengalis.com in 2015.
He was working in his lab on some experiments when he received “a frantic call” from his wife, Swapna (’81 MS Pharm.) saying Mount St. Helens had erupted “and I must come home immediately.”
He writes: “We lived in the second floor of an apartment, a short walk from the campus. While walking home I looked up at the western sky to find a very dark cloud rolling rapidly toward us. It was like a rolling thunder without the noise. Within a few short minutes the sky turned pitch black, much worse than a moonless night. It felt like the doomsday was upon us, sending a chill down my spine. I reached our apartment building in this darkness and among blaring police cars telling everyone to stay indoors. Suddenly I found that some white powdery stuff was coming down like rain from the sky with an eerie silence. Before I could realize what was happening I was covered with white ash.”
It was, Ray writes, “absolutely surreal!”
His wife “was in tears” when she saw him covered with ash. Growing up in Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, they had heard some religious people say the earth would cease to exist after a specified day due to the Mahapralay, or Great Dissolution, part of an endless cycle of dissolution and creation of the universe.
“The day came and went without an incident,” Ray writes. “But that day in Pullman certainly felt like Armageddon was truly upon us.”
Dean N. Grevé
Until late summer 1978, WSU’s legendary mascot, Butch T. Cougar, was represented by a live animal, an actual cougar. That fall, after the death of Butch VI, then-president Glenn Terrell decided the cougar mascot would take a different track. The rest of the school year, Butch was portrayed by different members of the Rally Squad. Students would switch off suiting up.
Dean N. Grevé (‘81 Comm.) was the first student dedicated to playing the role full time. He served as Butch from 1979 to 1981, his junior and senior years. He had recently ended his first year as Butch when Mount St. Helens blew.
“We were on a fraternity cruise on Lake Couer d’Alene,” says Grevé, who had invited a young woman he hardly knew as a date. The two of them attended the end-of-the-year event with one of Grevé’s fraternity brothers and his girlfriend. Being on the boat, they hadn’t heard the news. “We get in the car and start driving home and we’re like, ‘That’s a big rain cloud over there,’” Grevé recalls. “We didn’t know what it was. Everything’s gray, and there’s dust everywhere, and you can’t see. It was wild.”
The two couples decided to wait it out. “We thought it would die down,” Grevé says. “We were sitting at a Perkin’s in Spokane, and a police officer came by and said, ‘You kids need to find a place to stay.”
Roads had closed, making it impossible to drive back to Pullman. “We started driving around, looking for places to stay. Everything was full. We ended up at the Paul Bunyan Motel, then went out and got some cheap beer,” Grevé says. “It was stressful. Everything was gray and scary, and you didn’t know—if you breathed it—would it kill you? It took three days before we could get back to Pullman. We couldn’t drive because the dust would pick up and you couldn’t see.”
After that experience, stranded in a cheap motel in Spokane, he says he doesn’t think his cruise date ever talked to him again. “She was having none of it,” he says.
Becky Phillips (’76, ’81 DVM) is a staff writer at Washington State Magazine. She was in veterinary school when Mount St. Helens erupted. She wrote this reflection:
It was finals week in vet school, and we needed a study break. A couple of us decided to drive to Idaho for a picnic and, along the way, heard vague radio reports about a volcano erupting. We didn’t think much of it, even when we saw a wide black cloud approaching as we ate lunch.
Anticipating rain, we went inside the cabin only to emerge later to a shocking scene of big fluffy gray flakes falling on our skin and hair. I was afraid it would burn me. My boyfriend scrambled us into the car and cautiously drove back to Pullman as it grew darker and darker. Ash clouds obscured the roadway, and one impatient van driver passed us only to end up in the ditch farther down the road.
When I finally returned to my apartment, my distraught roommate opened the door with tears and relief. She’d thought I was dead. Throughout the night, she and I followed what news we could through phone calls and radio.
The next morning, we opened the door to an unreal world. Everything was coated with ash, and it was completely silent. Not a bird, not an insect. Just silence.
We didn’t know what to do. Nothing in our experience had prepared us for this. Would it hurt us? Would it ruin the car’s engine? What about the plants and animals?
We tied bandanas over our faces and hesitantly stepped outside. Slowly, people began to share information and join together to try to clean up the mess. Do you sweep the ash? Do you hose it? Either way, they were saying, don’t let it get in your lungs.
For one of the few times ever, WSU decided to close—and that meant our class got out of a tough theriogenology exam. As word got around, we slowly congregated in the vet barns and updated each other with news. It wasn’t long before a couple guys raided the cupboards and brought out boxes of blue cloth surgery masks. With shouts of victory, we put them on and ventured forth.
Lynn Welch Nowak
Lynn Welch Nowak (’80 Comm.), a longtime copy editor and contributor to the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader, was doing laundry when she learned of the eruption. She was a married student, a senior, working at the Daily Evergreen and preparing to graduate. She wrote this reflection:
On that warm Sunday, May 18, it grew dark in the middle of the day. The blanket of false night crept upward, stretching first along Pullman’s west horizon, then filling the dome of sky above until it spread to the opposite horizon in the east. Streetlights turned on. The birds seemed confused about when to sing their daytime songs.
My husband and I were folding clothes at the laundromat, the one near Daylight Donuts, when we first learned about the eruption. Mount St. Helens had been rumbling already for a couple of weeks, so John correctly surmised what had happened even prior to us hearing the news on the radio.
After it turned completely dark, the ash began to fall within a couple of hours. It looked like snow but smelled like something burning. I think we spent the rest of that Sunday holed up at home, as most people did, since nobody yet knew the ramifications of all that collected ash. We didn’t know the impact on car engines, on roadways, on human skin or in human eyes.
But when Monday morning dawned clear—I remember the brilliant blue sky—“normal” life resumed on campus. It wasn’t long, however, before vehicle traffic kicked up the new fallen ash off the ground, creating poor air quality and diminishing visibility. Within an hour or two, the day’s classes were canceled.
John and I both headed to work; he at the Student Health Service, and me at the Daily Evergreen. We share the same memory of eerie walks from where we lived in married student housing in South Fairway across a now-deserted campus. When we did see signs of life, students were bundled up as if it were winter, substituting warm spring attire for long-sleeved hoodies, jeans, sturdy shoes, and hats. We wore bandanas across our faces, or face masks, if we could get them. People were fearful of the unknown impacts of the ash on our health.
As a registered nurse at the Student Health Service, John treated the symptoms of sore throats and congestion. At the Evergreen office, staff members, including me, were fearful about how the ash in the air would affect our brand-new VDTs (Visual Display Terminals), the early computers that were our updated method of producing the newspaper.
As a 1980 graduate, I remember that commencement was a memorable, yet hurried, event. Families adjusted their travel plans, concerned about potentially adverse effects to their vehicles. It might be one of the few times there was no speaker at the ceremony. Everything was cut short, and students dispersed into the ash-filled landscape and headed home, hoping to leave the gray world behind.
Karen (Blair) Troianello
Karen (Blair) Troianello (’80 Comm.) is a longtime copy editor at the Yakima Herald-Republic. From 1976 to 1980, she was a member of the WSU women’s track team—one of five varsity women’s sports at that time. In 1979, she was the plaintiff in the landmark Blair v. Washington State University lawsuit (story from the WSM archives) that forced greater equity in college athletics. She wrote this reflection:
Looking back at May 18, 1980, I’m as surprised now as I was when the sky darkened under an ominous cloud and ash started to fall.
I’m mostly surprised that so much time has passed so quickly. When the mountain blew, I was 22, getting ready to graduate and find a job. In the geological blink of an eye, I’m 62 and thinking about retirement.
I’m surprised at how many details I’ve forgotten. How did we hear that it was a volcano erupting? How long did the ash fall that day? I think the details were swallowed up in the gritty aftermath: Sweeping, sweeping, and more sweeping. Trying to keep the ash out of the apartment. Wearing a scarf over my face to prevent inhalation of the ash.
What I do remember was that it was the first weekend after I’d run my last race as a Cougar. I was planning to study that morning outside the basement apartment on Lake Street and get together with a study group that afternoon. But then that black cloud spread across the horizon and kept coming. Somehow we learned it was Mount St. Helens. Maybe my mother, who had heard the blast in Bellingham, called. Maybe my roommate heard it on the radio or from someone else. At any rate, we figured it out as the ash started to fall.
We hurriedly covered the small vegetable garden with a sheet, but didn’t think to cover the car.
And then we watched the ash fall and wondered what would happen next.
We heard stories of students picking up the free face masks and selling them door to door. (They must have been business students.) We got together with neighbors and made up a board game based on the eruption. Wheat Thins and M&Ms served as game pieces and prizes.
Of course, as a journalism student, I also tried to keep up with the news in the weeks that followed, trying to learn how to cover such a massive story. While living with an inch of ash was inconvenient, it was heartbreaking to learn of the loss of life and see the destruction of a beautiful landscape.
In early June, my parents came by Greyhound for commencement. We walked through the ash to Beasley Coliseum and then drank Champagne and played a game of Ash Ball, which was just softball in which every motion kicked up a cloud of dust.
Since 1980, there’s always been a jar of ash on my bookshelf. I watched as the ash along various Eastern Washington highways became another layer of the earth, ready to tell a story to later generations of geologists.
On the 35th anniversary of the eruption, the Yakima Herald-Republic staff was preparing a story about what people remembered. A co-worker—a young co-worker—complained that people kept talking about something that had happened so long ago. Why, she wondered, did anyone still care?
I guess you had to be there.
Where were you? Reader memories of Mount St. Helens