Washington State Magazine asked readers to share their memories of the eruption of Mount St. Helens 40 years ago. Here are their recollections of that fateful day.
Long drive home
For whatever reason, we decided that May 18, 1980, was an excellent day to leave campus and go to the motocross races in Clarkia, Idaho. We were watching the races when a large, ominous thunderstorm appeared over the ridge. As we got ready to head for the cars to avoid the rain, it started to snow. Except it wasn’t snow. We hopped into the car and started the long drive back to Pullman. The “snow” began to pile up on the road. It was pitch black and eerily quiet. Whenever we passed another car, we had to pull over and wait for several minutes until the ash settled. The cars would be stopped on opposite sides of the road just a few yards apart and, in the silence, we would ask each other if there was any information about the eruption or conditions on the road ahead. Then we got back in our cars and continued driving. It would take us nearly four hours to drive the 60 miles from Clarkia to Pullman.
— Trevor Hall ’82 Math
Even the birds were concerned. Their normal, May, chirpy prattle began to soften and go quiet. All of Pullman became overcast, then a grim rolling gray, and then black. Cars crept by, worried, their lights on. It was 1 p.m. Finally, President Glenn Terrell canceled classes. What happened next? The liquor store on Main, and then Dissmore’s, ran out of alcohol in just a few hours. And, flopping onto our maddeningly sandy sheets with that last handful of popcorn, we feel asleep to distant whooping and happy gunfire in the hills behind North Campus Heights. It was wonderful.
— Bonnie (Bollinger) Hoffman ’84 Liberal Arts
With the end of my freshman year fast approaching, I knew I needed to get busy working on my final presentation for Speech 102. I had chosen to discuss the issue of handheld calculator use in grade schools, a contentious topic of the day.
Around noon, I made my initial research excursion to WSU’s Education Library in Cleveland Hall, just down the street from my Stimson residence, and observed that the sky was darkening ominously; I anticipated an inevitable downpour. The status of Mount St. Helens had been in the back of my mind, but the May 18 eruption totally escaped me. Earnestly tending to my studies, I had no time for the media—I had a speech to write!
A couple of hours or so into my diligent preparation—and wondering why it was taking so long for the blasted storm to arrive—I happened to look out my eastward facing window to the terrace in front of the Physical Sciences building. The familiar red bricks there didn’t look right. They were gray!
Puzzled by this, I raised the antiquated sash to get a better look. But I still didn’t “get it” as I leaned out the window, placing my hands on the outer sill, to investigate this mystery. Only then, with my fingers touching the newly fallen ash, did I finally realize what had happened. All thoughts of speeches and calculators immediately dissipated.
Stimson residents used the Stephenson Complex dining hall, and I didn’t want to miss dinner. I knew several guys living in the south tower, so I quickly headed down the hill to join them. The situation had fast become surreal; it was now virtually dark outside, birds were doing their twilight chirping at three in the afternoon, and campus police car megaphones were blaring, instructing all of us to take cover inside.
That evening, I tried for at least half an hour to telephone my family in Bellevue, finally getting through to let my brother know I was fine. His response was “what?” Most folks on the western side of the state had no idea what we were going through! And it took just as long to order a pizza from Karl Marks, which occupied the little building right across the street from Stephenson South. I ended up sleeping on the floor, wondering if the morning would bring daylight.
The sun indeed was shining the next morning, but WSU’s academic machinery was halted for, I believe, the next four days. President Glenn Terrell finally made an announcement that students had the choice to take their current course grades and leave town, or continue attending classes—and take final exams—with the assurance that grades could only improve. Thanks to the volcano, I earned my highest undergrad GPA that term.
When all was said and done, I headed back home, but not without the obligatory pill bottle filled with some Pullman ash. Forty years on, I still have that bottle.
— Charles J. Eckard ’84 Elect. Eng., ’94 MBA
Stuck in Stephenson
I was stuck in Stephenson South, third floor. The nice thing was the option of either taking the final exams or to go with the grade you had prior to the final exam. Can’t believe it’s been almost 40 years since when it erupted.
— Joseph Kevin Villagomez ’82 Liberal Arts
Stuck in Spokane
My fiancé, Pauline, and I were students at WSU in 1980. We drove up to Spokane on Sunday, May 18, 1980, for a planned pleasant day in the city to end with a nice dinner and a drive back to Pullman in the evening. That spring day started off clear and sunny. We heard that, indeed, Mount St. Helens had blown her top that morning, but we were not too concerned, being about 250 miles northeast of the blast.
One of the vivid memories I have of that day is standing in Spokane’s Riverfront Park mid-day, observing the dark ominous cloud approaching from the west. We overheard one man say to the woman standing next to him, “If I had known we were going to get a rainstorm, we would have stayed in California.” I wonder to this day what happened to those folks, who obviously had no idea what was coming for the next few days.
Later that afternoon, as the dark clouds edged toward Spokane, ash began to fall lightly. We visited the Campbell House Museum. While inside, the sky became black as night. All the streetlights came on. The ash fall was heavier.
We stopped at the restaurant for our early dinner reservations, only to find that the restaurant had started to send their staff home due to the increasing ash fall. By now, ash was falling like snow. I decided that we should start driving south to get back to Pullman before it was too late.
It was already too late! Near the Interstate 5/Highway 195 interchange, the State Patrol had closed Highway 195 with a roadblock. Interestingly, as the ash cloud passed overhead, the sky brightened and all the streetlights turned off. It was the normal early evening Spokane daylight again—except for the gray ash everywhere.
We were stranded. We scrambled to find a place to stay in Spokane since travel in-and-out was not going to happen. We ended up staying with Pauline’s roommate’s parents (the Johnsons) in north Spokane the rest of the week. The State Patrol re-opened Highway 195 on Thursday for the return trip to Pullman. Our one day in sunny Spokane turned into a five-day adventure.
Dusty ash was everywhere. At the house where we stayed, the Johnsons’ teenage son got cabin fever quickly. And he kept disregarding the command to stop letting the dog out. Of course, classes had been canceled in Pullman. Administration even let students leave town before the late-May finals if they wanted to get away from the ash—as long as they were good with the grade they would receive without the final exam. I stuck it out and stayed in Pullman, as I needed those final exams to pull up my grades.
And Pauline and I married in 1981. We are still married almost 40 years later.
— Greg Salo, ’82 Elect. Eng.
Our family farm is almost 20 miles north of Pullman, on the Idaho side of the border. When ash fell on the newly emerging spring crops, farmers were not sure what the effect of ash would be on the baby plants. As time went on, they discovered the layer of ash actually helped hold in needed moisture for the growing season and the yields were above average. There was no distinguishable damage to the harvested crops later in August.
— Angela Lenssen, development coordinator, annual giving and stewardship,
Carson College of Business, WSU
My dad’s family grew up in Rosalia, which is a tiny little town 30 miles outside of Spokane. My dad is one of seven siblings and—while everyone had moved away—they were all back in town for my aunt’s wedding shower.
I was a 3 1/2 at the time, and I remember my mom and dad piling me—in my jammies—in the back of our car. I didn’t really understand a lot of what was going on, but I knew they were going to get my aunt because something was happening and it wasn’t safe for her to be out and we needed her to come home immediately. So we drove to the church where she was having her shower and collected her while also warning everyone else to go home.
That night my grandma’s house was packed. The grandkids were spread everywhere across the floors. I was on the couch with my cousin, Jill, on the other end. My soon-to-be uncle’s mom was sharing a bedroom with my grandma. Her bedroom was located right near the couch.
All of the sudden we heard this hysterical laughter that lasted several minutes—and a loud crash. All the adults came running. It turned out my grandma and my soon-to-be-uncle’s mom had laughed so hard they broke the bed.
My dad’s mom was always an aloof grandma, and I never really pictured her in a “fun” way so I was amazed with this side of her. I was blown away adults could laugh so hard they could break a bed. I thought it was amazing. I hoped one day I could do that. So now when I think of Mount St. Helens, I smile and think about the most beautiful memory I have of my grandma!
— Jessica Loos, friend of WSU
I was completing my first year of junior college and preparing to transfer to the only university I applied for: WSU. (Why go anywhere else?) I was staying in my parents’ home in Richland, sleeping in on another beautiful Eastern Washington Sunday, but my dad heard a boom that shook the house shortly after 8:30 a.m. Later, we noticed a black cloud forming on the western horizon, but that was not unusual in the springtime days of smudge pots in the Yakima Valley. We hadn’t even heard about the eruption as I gathered my tackle and headed out with some friends in my rebuilt ‘69 Super Bee for some catch-and-release bass fishing.
As we spent the morning targeting a favorite spot along the Yakima River near a railroad bridge in West Richland, we couldn’t help but notice a very dark cloud growing toward us, so we flipped on the AM radio and heard the news—wow, an eruption! Two hundred miles away. Interesting, but so what?
Soon the menacing billowy ash cloud completely blackened the sky. We packed our gear and headed back home as ash began to fall like snow. The streetlights, triggered on by photosensors, appeared like glowing orbs in space as the cloud descended upon us and the sky grew as dark as any moonless night.
Ash fell throughout the day, accumulating up to a half-inch as the cloud gradually dissipated. We wore dust masks in the ashy haze of the following day as we washed our cars, gingerly to avoid damaging the paint, and wondered exactly how we should deal with this situation. We marveled at the stories of forests scorched and flattened by pyroclastic flows, Spirit Lake, and Harry Truman. We were all concerned not only for the health effects of breathing ash particles but also for the possible damage to our car motors. I recall seeing pictures in the local newspapers of State Patrol cars retrofitted with cyclonic farm-tractor dust filters protruding through their grills in the Ritzville area.
The accumulated ash gradually disappeared through the action of street sweepers, rain, and wind. Traces could be seen in the surrounding countryside for years afterward during our semesterly pilgrimages to and from Street Sweepers the Palouse. I even stopped to collect ash still clearly visible along Highway 26, on our way to watch Drew Bledsoe help deliver another win for the Cougars in the early 1990s!
— Robert S. McKee, ’84 Mech. Eng.
Stuck in Colfax
My mother, Ruth Brown, lived on Brown Road that connects the High Road from Moscow to Pullman to the Sand Road along the south fork of Palouse Creek. I remember she told us she was driving from Spokane back to her home as the ash started to fall. I believe she ended up in Colfax, staying overnight with a family she did not know. I found a letter she wrote May 27, 1980, which has some detail you might find of interest for the 40th anniversary.
— Neal Brown, ’61 Physics
Dear Neal, Fran and Boys,
While I sit under the hair dryer I will write you a letter.
It has been a busy past week. It took me three afternoons to get my car cleaned up. It was really a mess. The engine was covered with fine gritty dust. Also, I had to get out of the car several times on my way home from Spokane and, of course, each time I was covered with dust as it was sifting down through the air like fine snow.
I took my old tank vacuum out and used it to clean it, put the hose on the blower end and blew as much of it as I could (took my car in the a.m. to have a grease job and oil change and oil filter changed. Just had it done about three weeks ago but would rather been safe than sorry.) off the engine, took the air cleaner out and knocked the dust out of it and also blew it out with the vacuum cleaner. Really had it looking good inside and out, then I went to town Thursday afternoon and, of course, with all that fine dust on the roads, the outside was all dusty again and on the way home it rained on me a little so that spotted it up good. I got out yesterday morning and rinsed it off with the hose but we have had more rain starting Saturday night and all day Sunday all day Sunday night. Kind of cleared up yesterday, but I am sure got more in the night last night. …
We must have had almost four inches now in May—good for crops. They are beginning to look pretty good in this area. Wheat is getting a nice dark color and the peas came up good. …
Of course, all the mail has been fouled up over the Volcano. … Highways were closed out of (Spokane) until Wednesday afternoon. No planes into Spokane until Wednesday a.m. — and they were landing at their own risk. Guess Northwest (Airlines) was the first one that chanced it. I think they are probably back to normal now. …
It has been a mammoth job getting the dust cleaned up around the buildings. Jim (Brown, cousin of Neal) and his crew have been at it all week at Jefferson school in Pullman, where is head custodian. I am sure we will fight this dust all summer. It is so fine it doesn’t even wet down like ordinary dust and when you walk through the grass you have another fog. Also with all those fine glass and rock particles it is like wet cement when you pick up a handful. No doubt it will be hard on the farm machinery. …
Everybody is wearing face masks. I got me one the other day, but really haven’t used it yet. Didn’t have one when I was cleaning my car. However, I covered my nose with a piece of cloth. …
I was 10 years old and I was with a bunch of neighborhood kids were playing in the fields off of Old Pullman Road. The sky turned dark and I remember it being surprisingly cold. The only other time I’ve had this sensation was during a total eclipse. It was very quiet and eerie and strangely other-worldly in a way I cannot really describe. None of us knew what was going on and we were all pretty afraid. As we were running home the ash started to fall. In the coming days school was cancelled (for the remainder of the school year, I think!) and we weren’t allowed to play outside. I remember earnestly trying to wash our two cats for fear that they’d lick ash off of themselves and get sick – I emerged the loser on that one, covered in scratches and wet cat hair! Eventually, we were allowed back outside with the ash. We collected jars of it — to what end I don’t know! My parents still have a jar in their basement.
Being out in the fields when the ash cloud appeared is something I’ll never forget. It was a truly amazing experience.
— Kathryn Mohan McDonald, Oakland, California
Special KWSU/Broadcast 465 newscast from May 19, 1980, about the Mount St. Helens eruption and impact to Washington State University
Lessons learned from the eruption
“It was raining ash” (Stories of Mount St. Helens from WSU faculty, staff, and alumni)
On the web
More memories—including some from WSU students and faculty in the Spokesman-Review archives