Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah
image Mt. St. Helens today. Shutterstock photo

August 15, 2013
Falling ash stirs long-forgotten memories of Mt. St. Helens

“Memories, like the corners of my mind,” starts the Barbara Streisand song from “The Way We Were.”

Tuesday afternoon the corners of my mind were dusted off when I walked out the back door of Anthony’s Main Street Grill and looked to the west and saw two giant funnel shaped plumes of red tinted smoke pour over the top of the Stansbury Mountains.

I negotiated my way across Main Street to the Transcript-Bulletin offices and climbed the stairs to my second floor cubicle and stared out the window next to my desk. The brightness of the afternoon started to give way to something that appeared more like a mid-day dusk.

Then flakes of ash gently started floating down from the sky and that’s when I was transported back into the corner of my mind — to May 19, 1980 to be exact.

It was my second senior year at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wa. I was managing the now dismantled Barto Hall, the largest residence hall on the school’s campus.

It had three wings with three floors each. Each wing resembled a Motel 6. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment at the convergence of the three wings, and it had a large patio with a sliding glass door that let the morning sun shine into the living room.

On Saturday, May 17, my roommate and I spent the day down on the Columbia River near the small town of Vantage. There was water-skiing, loud music, and other fun pursued by the typical college student that attended one of the most non-sober schools.

It was a wonderful sunny day and we planned on going back to Vantage the following day.

I woke up early the next morning and looked out the patio door. It was sunny and the sky was blue with no clouds. Yes, we could go back to Vantage.

I jumped into the shower, cleaned up and stepped out of the bathroom. And then I noticed something had changed. Instead of brightness from the morning sun, the apartment was dark and shadowy. It appeared more like evening.

It’s strange the thoughts that run through your head when you experience sensory incongruency, i.e. when your brain can’t make sense of the data it’s being fed.

I looked at a clock and it was 9 a.m. I wondered how long I had been in the shower, maybe it was now 9 p.m.? My roommate was still asleep in his bed. I looked out the patio window and the sky appeared dark.

The front door of the apartment opened out into the commons area of the dorm. I threw the door open and walked across the lobby still dressed in only my towel. I looked out the huge plate glass windows to the west.

The sky was gray and turning black. Black clouds, I mean real black clouds, blacker than any thunderheads I had ever seen, were arriving from the west.

I stepped outside the front door of the lobby as gray ash started to fall from the sky with the intensity of a winter snow storm. The air was thick and smelled like a wet campfire.

Was this end of the world? Had somebody finally dropped an atomic bomb on Seattle? My mind continued to race, trying to explain what was happening.

I went back into my room and turned on the TV. The channel was playing its regular Sunday programs. Frantically, I flipped through channels until one station finally broke in with a news bulletin.

Mt. St. Helens in southwest Washington had erupted. The eruption sent a huge plume of ash miles into the air and it was being carried east by the prevailing winds.

OK, I could relax. This wasn’t the end of the world. In Ellensburg, we received only a few inches of ash. It covered the ground like dirty snow that would not melt.

Down in Yakima, where my brother lived, they got at least a foot. I saw pictures on the news of people shoveling ash with their snow shovels.

The university closed down for a week. Most of the students that had a way out of town left for home. But I stayed behind. I walked to the local Albertson’s store to get some food because the dining hall was closed. The shelves were nearly empty. Truck drivers stopped making deliveries because they were afraid the ash would damage their truck’s engine. And here I was walking around in it.

It took a few days and they figured out that the air filters on their vehicles worked; they would get clogged and drivers would have to clean them so they could keep going.

Once Greyhound started running buses again, I checked on the few students that were left in the dorm to make sure they would be all right, and then I caught a bus home to Olympia.

Returning to Ellensburg the next week, the ash had been cleaned off the roads and walkways. Eventually the wind blew the ash away to somewhere. I collected a full bottle of it as a souvenir, but don’t know where it is today.

The Mt. St. Helens eruption was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States. A total of 57 people were killed, and 250 homes and 47 bridges were wiped out. Fifteen miles of railway and 185 miles of highway were obliterated.

Mt. St. Helens used to be a symmetrically perfect snow-capped peak. After the eruption it had a one-mile wide crater that looked like Paul Bunyan thought it was a Hostess cupcake and took a bite out of it.

The eruption flattened and burned everything in a 230-square-mile area. That’s about the size of 10 Tooele Cities. The resulting flow of volcanic mud sent 3.9 billion cubic feet of debris down the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers and on into the Columbia River. That’s 44,318 Olympic-size swimming pools of mud.

In another corner of my mind is a field trip to the Tumwater City Library with my fourth grade class. We had been studying local geography and the library had a three-dimensional map of Washington State.

I remember looking at the map and being fascinated by the mountains of the Cascade Range that divided Washington in half. To the north was Mt. Baker, then came Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and just over the border into Oregon, was Mt. Hood.

We learned that the mountains were dormant volcanoes. They weren’t dead, but they were asleep. That was in 1966, 14 years before Mt. St. Helens would announce its awakening with an earthquake and a huge puff of steam.

“What would happen if one of the volcanoes woke up and erupted,” I asked.

“You don’t need to worry. That’s never going to happen,” I was reassured.

Yep, never say never.

Tim Gillie

Staff Writer at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Tim covers education, Tooele City government, business, real estate, politics and the state Legislature. He became a journalist after a long career as an executive with the Boy Scouts of America. Tim is a native of Washington state and a graduate of Central Washington University.

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