Where were you when Mount Saint Helen’s blew?

Deb recounts the harrowing experience of trying to get home amid the aftermath of a massive volcanic event

A pyroclastic flow shows down the side of the mountain after the initial explosion of Mt. St. Helens May 18, 1980. (photo from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)  from the air).

May 18, 1980 can you say where you were? How about if I mention Mount Saint Helen’s, bring back some memories?

The date almost slipped by me, and I thought how can that be? I went through a once in a who knows how long event (at least in my lifetime for sure), and I was 50 flight miles from the mountain that day.

The mountain had been grumbling for weeks, people had been evacuated from a zone around Spirit Lake, except for a man named Harry Truman and his 99 cats.

He refused to leave saying, “I’ve lived here my whole life (born in 1896), and I’ll die here if I have to,” and he did. So did 56 other people around the mountain.

I was on the eighth floor of a large building on May 18, with huge windows facing the mountain. Someone said, “hey come look, the mountain is going,” and stupidly we all went to the window.

I will never forget what happened next. The mountain did blow, and those big windows bowed inward just about as far as they could, followed by an enormous sound.

Turns out it was the concussion wave that hit us before the sound wave did, which knocked us all to the floor. It took a second for the danger to register.

Thank fortune for the winds that day because they took the plume of ash that was blasted into the air to the jet stream toward Portland, Oregon instead of Tacoma, Washington.

As it was, the ash wrapped all the way around the world anyway and dusted everyone.

The chaos that ensued that day was astounding. The whole of Spirit Lake was displaced down the mountain, the forests were flattened and flash flooding and massive mud-flows raced toward communities downstream.

My parents lived close to Portland, and the massive column of pumice and steam turned day into night. I was terrified.

No one really knew if the threat was over or if that angry mountain had more to come.

The problem I had in all of this was I was in the last two days of university for the year, and had no idea how I was going to get home to Salem after finals.

Never underestimate what a mother will go through to rescue her child. My mom drove through an Interstate corridor that could have been closed at any time, as the rivers that flowed under I-5 brought down the floodwaters, mudflows and trees blown from the mountain.

Bridges had been damaged ,but no one knew how badly, and the ash on the interstate was so thick, it was one lane, white knuckle driving and no stopping as you really couldn’t see.

When mom got to me I was incredulous. I wasn’t sure I could be that brave heading back to I-5 to go directly around the mountain. But mom said we had to go because our way home could be cut off at any time.

We turned our air filter upside down, so the glass in the ash would not clog it, and proceeded into a world where everything was dark and grey with piles of ash inthe trees, falling on your car, and the poor cows and animals I saw had inches of ash on them.

I managed to look down at the Toutle River from the bridge. The mudflow and trees were up to just underneath the bridge, making it bounce as we inched our way across, hoping it held.

As we slowly made our way home, we did not talk, it was too hard to see, and we were both scared out of our wits as we went around the base of the mountain.

We found out later they closed the Interstate just behind us, as it was very dangerous and a very fluid situation, as things were still happening atop and inside the mountain.

I will never forget that trip, or that day.

Nor will I forget my mom’s incredible determination to come and rescue me.