John Moro had come to Missoula from Portland for an
extended weekend visit. He was staying across town at Kelly and Bobbie Wilson’s
house, but on Sunday, May 18th, he was hanging out with Sally and me.
It was a beautiful spring day in The Garden City. The
air was warm, the sky was deep blue, and a few billowy, white cumulus clouds
were drifting along, glowing brilliant white in the spring sunshine. That
afternoon John and I walked over to West Side Park to bat some fly balls to
each other. It wasn’t really crowded (Westside Park never was), but several
folks were enjoying the outdoor space the park provided. Winters are long and
gray in Missoula. In May spring is starting to pick up speed, and people were glad
to get out and enjoy the summer-like weather.
John and I found a wide open space where we could
hit fly balls, and run around enough to catch them without disturbing other
people. John is tall, athletic, and fleet footed. It didn’t matter how errant I
hit a fly ball, he could run it down and suck it up like a vacuum cleaner. That
was a good thing, because when I hit fly balls they could go anywhere. John was
getting some good exercise chasing down my wild hits, while I was enjoying
watching his outfielding clinic.
As I was about to hit a ball to John, I looked at
the sky to the west and saw the nastiest cloud ever. It was dark gray, almost
black underneath and lighter grey on top. Not brilliant white in the sun like
clouds normally are. The bottom hung down in heavy, billowing pendulums. I’d seen a lot of
spectacular weather clouds before, but none looked like hell-born malevolent evil the way this one did.
“Man, that’s the weirdest
cloud I’ve ever seen. There’s a bad storm comin’ our way,” I said to John with
my arms hanging at my sides – soft ball in one hand, bat in the other. I was
mesmerized by the grotesque formation filling the western horizon.
At that moment, a pretty girl was peddling by on
her fat-tired, cruiser-style bicycle. She was maybe nineteen or twenty, and her
long, blond hair was blowing behind her as she rolled by. She had overheard my
statement, and without slowing down, she matter-of-factly corrected my
statement: “That’s Mount St. Helens’ plume.” And off she rode.
Or maybe it
went like this:
At that moment, an attractive thirty-something
woman was jogging by. She was tall and thin, and her long, blond pony-tail was bouncing
behind her as she ran. She had overheard my statement, and without losing
stride, she matter-of-factly corrected my statement: “That’s Mount St. Helens’
plume.” And she was gone.
plays tricks on me, so you choose the version you like better.
“What did she say?” I
“It’s Mount St. Helens’
“What’s Mount St. Helens’
“Mount St. Helens’ plume” didn’t have much context
for me, so I didn’t immediately think about Mount St. Helens erupting. Sally
and I hadn’t paid much attention to news about the mountain. I don’t think it
was reported on as much in Missoula as it was in Portland, which is only fifty
miles away from the mountain. I was only vaguely aware of the events leading up
to the eruption. John and everyone else living in Portland had been getting a
steady stream of Mount St. Helens media coverage. News of the earthquakes and ash
eruptions that had been going on since March were just about daily there.
Portlanders were expecting that something bigger might happen at any time.
“Mount St. Helens. The
volcano. It must have erupted.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said slowly
and thoughtfully while looking at the ominous, expanding cloud of ash. His
explanation was starting to sink in. Mount St. Helens, a vague reference to me
up until then, was about to become indelibly imprinted on my consciousness.
Knowing this was not a storm cloud explained why
it looked more like a smoky prelude to Satan’s coming. John and I looked at it for a while, embracing
the awe. But we soon shrugged it off to resume our activity, even as it grew
larger and came closer. We hit the ball around a while longer then went back to
my house. We were going over to Kelly and Bobbie’s for burgers that afternoon,
so as nice as the day was, we couldn’t stay at the park forever.
By the time we got over to Kelly and Bobbie’s, the
plume had completely covered the valley. It was getting dark hours in advance
of sunset. But even as dark as it already was, it continued to get even darker
as time went on. The neighborhood bird population had retreated to their nests.
This all made for interesting conversation, and that was certainly the topic
dejure. As weird as it all was, there was no alarm in our ranks. As far as we
knew it would just pass over eventually.
We were starting to eat when our four year old
daughter, Molly, noticed her paper plate wasn’t clean.
“Mommy, there’s spots on my plate.”
Sally looked at Molly’s paper plate and noticed
black spots of ash all over it. She thought it was just some of the crust from
the grilled burger patty that had fallen on to Molly’s plate.
“It’s just from your hamburger.
It’s ok,” Sally told her, and she wiped the spots off.
Within a few seconds, Molly was complaining again.
“Mommy, they’re back.”
Sure enough, Molly’s plate was again covered with
spots, and even more than before. Then we looked at our own plates. Ash was
settling all over them as well, and it was visible on our food. We brushed it off
our hamburger buns. We laughed and talked about it for a short time, maybe not
more than half a minute, when suddenly the particles of ash became visible in
the air all around us. After about another half a minute, the fallout was getting
The ash cloud, once airborne and overhead, was
descending on us. It was crashing down rapidly! Those ugly pendulums I saw
hanging from the cloud earlier were now surrounding us like a thick fog. The
density of the ash had a muffling effect on sound. All the normal sounds like
the street traffic and neighbor’s voices were muted and distant. It was even absorbing
the sound of our voices, and I think we all started talking a bit louder. And
still, the dense, gray cloud grew thicker. The atmosphere was becoming surreal.
The unsettling event was starting to get freaky,
and we became concerned. We were questioning if breathing and eating the ash
was safe. With very little debate we decided not to risk our safety. Hurriedly,
we picked everything up and moved it into the house. Sally didn’t wait around;
she grabbed Molly and took her in right away to get her out of the unprecedented
Within minutes the world outside had become fully
enveloped in gloom. It was alarming how quickly the ash cloud had lowered to
the ground and how thick it was. Darkness had come early. The streetlights were
on. The birds had gone to roost. Visibility was so obscured it was difficult to
see to the street from the house.
Kelly turned on the radio to find disk jockeys
taking on the ad hoc roll of news anchors. They were frazzled but trying to
remain calm. You could tell from their voices that they themselves were kind of
freaking out. The news and advice they were handing out was contradictory:
“The ash is ok to breathe.”
“Don’t breathe the ash!”
“Put a dry cloth over
“Put a wet cloth over
“Don’t put a wet cloth
over your mouth because the ash will turn to acid!”
Sheesh! This “advice” was coming rapid fire. We
didn’t know what to believe, and the local media was itself in a growing panic.
They were blurting out anything and everything, right or wrong, verified our
not. Sally and I decided we should get to our own house, afraid we might not be
able to drive in the stuff if we waited any longer.
We packed up our stuff to leave and said our
goodbyes. John, who had planned on going back to Portland the next day, said prophetically
“I’ll probably be seeing you. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get out of here.”
On the way home, Molly sat in Sally’s lap. With
eyes open wide in astonishment, she took in the surreal experience. Enough ash
had already settled on the streets that cars were creating swirling eddies and
billowing clouds in their wakes. It was only early evening, and the sun was
still up, but you couldn’t tell that. It was ominously dark. The street lights
were on, but they looked like faintly glowing orbs suspended above the ground. We
got home and rushed into the house to minimize our exposure to any unknown
danger. We closed the windows to keep out the menacing ash.
That evening, the television reports and video were
astonishing. From devastating lahar flooding on the Tootle River to the massive
ash fall in Spokane, we could see how damaging the eruption, flash floods, and
ash fall had been elsewhere. In Spokane, just two hundred miles to the west, they
were using heavy equipment to clear ash off the streets. The video was shot in
the afternoon, yet the scene was illuminated by street lights and headlamps. It
was frightening and fascinating the same time. We hoped our ash fall wouldn’t
be that bad. We hoped by morning the whole thing would have blown over…
The next day we got up early and looked outside to
see the results of the overnight ash fall. We could hardly fathom how our
neighborhood landscape had been transformed. Everything, and I mean everything, was covered in a layer of
fine gray ash. Color had been sucked from the landscape.
The sky was clear and blue, yet it was different.
There was an eerie abnormality in the color and the depth of the sky. It was as
if we had woken up on another planet. Looking back, I believe the atmosphere
was still infused with mico-particles of ash; ash so fine that gravity had only
a minimal effect on it. The suspended ash was too fine to see, but it altered
the way light was diffused.
I went into the back yard to collect a sample of
ash in a jar. It was strangely quiet outside. My footsteps were muffled and
almost silent. There were no birds out. I noticed street traffic was light for
a workday; people must have stayed home from work.
The news from Spokane said the ash fall there had
crippled traffic. Heavy equipment used to clear the streets was breaking down because
the ash proved to be lethal to internal combustion engines and exposed
mechanical parts. The ash fall in Missoula was only a few inches deep, miniscule
compared to what Spokane was dealing with. That was a big relief. It didn’t
look like we were going to have any problems. That assumption was incorrect;
things were about to get worse – big time!
|Spokane Ash Removal|
Our meager ash fall had its own sinister characteristics
and associated problems. Gravity had worked like a filtration system on the ash
plume. As the ash traveled north and east, the largest and heaviest bits had
fallen out first. Coarse, heavy ash fell on Spokane. By the time the plume made
it across Washington, northern Idaho, and then over the mountains to Missoula, ash
particles left in the plume were fine and light. These feather weight particles
were easy to disturb and suspend aloft.
When the rising sun started to warm things up, air
began to move from the cool shadows into the sunlight spaces. Those subtle air movements
were all it took to raise the ash out of the trees, off the houses, and out of
the streets. In minutes the ash was again set aloft and suspended by gentle air
movements. The once clear air became choked with the gritty, gray dust. It invaded
the house by finding any chink in a window sash, or gap around a door. It got
dark outside again. Not as dark as it had been the night before, but dreary and
gloomy. The gray fog of ash was so thick we couldn’t see across the street, and
barely to the edge of our yard.
From clear skies to total gray-out, by mid-morning
conditions had deteriorated severely. On the news we were hearing of cars that
had broken down because their air filters were completely clogged, or they were
internally damaged by ash. It was like putting sand in the engine. Some people
were having hard times breathing. It was obvious the ash was a health hazard,
at least to some vulnerable people.
It was becoming a bad situation. So bad that later
that morning, Governor Tom Judge declared a state of emergency in western
Montana. He established regulations to deal with the situation. Everyone was told
to stay in their homes, and ordered
to stay off the roads. Exceptions were to
drive to the hospital, the pharmacy, or the grocery store for essentials. If
you worked in those places you could drive to work, but that might put one’s
car in peril. Bars were on the list of businesses ordered to close. Keeping the
bars closed was a “spirited” challenge for authorities.
So there we were, essentially under a modified
form of martial law. We were confined to our 720 square foot, 1880’s house.
There was no air flow in the house. It was stuffy. In addition, we had an four
year old to entertain. As the day went on, it started to get warm in the house…
then hot. The walls seemed to close in. We opened our windows and hung wet cotton
diapers in the opening to filter the air. There was plenty of breeze outside to
suspend the feather-light, St. Helens ash, but not enough to move a significant
amount of air through the wet cotton cloth. It was just shy of being miserable,
but we got through the day.
The next day was just like the first. That routine
would repeat itself for four days. Wake up to clear weather; the sun comes up;
the air moves; the ash ascends; we stay indoors.
As John had professed that first night of ash
fall, he was still stuck in Missoula, holed up at the Wilsons` house.
On the second day, I took Molly outside. It was
early, while the ash was still in repose. I made her put on a dust mask and she
didn’t like it. She kept trying to take the mask off, and I kept making her put
it back on. Even though the air looked clear, I didn’t want to take any chance
on damaging her young lungs. I didn’t know if there were any harmful, suspended
particulates that I couldn’t see. It wasn’t worth the risk. I let her walk
around in the stuff for a while. I even let her touch it, but we didn’t stay
out long. Soon after we went in the ash fog returned. It was gray and it was
depressing. I can only imagine what it was like for the people who lived
through year after year of the 1930’s dust bowl.
Finally, on the fourth day, the air remained calm.
Even as the morning progressed, the breezes that had swirled the ash into a fog
on the previous days didn’t materialize. The ash finally stayed put. What a
relief! What was to happen next that morning was a surprise and a memorable
The radio stations were reporting that city officials
had requested a city wide cleanup. They wanted all Missoulians to go outside
and hose down their neighborhoods. They asked us to wash our streets from the
middle to the curb. We were advised to borrow hoses from the neighbors if we
didn’t have enough length. After hosing off the street, then water down our
lawns. Next, spray down the shrubbery and trees. Finally, if possible, hose
down the roof.
|Unknown Streeker Sweeper|
It was a relief to get out of the house. Neighbors
that had never spoken to each other were in the streets working together,
smiling and waving, and striking up conversations. Everyone was happy to be out
of their houses. I thought this was a silly exercise. I believed the ash would
soon re-invade the city from the immense region that surrounded Missoula.
Thankfully, I was wrong. The strategy worked. Even though the rest of western
Montana - the forests, the mountains, the valleys - were left to nature to clean,
the ash cloud never returned.
By noon that day, life returned to normal. The
governor’s restrictions were lifted and people went back to work. The roads
reopened, and John was able to get back to Portland.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens was fatal for 57
people. It caused expensive property damage for many and a temporary ordeal for
even more. The effect on those of us living in Missoula was mostly
inconvenience. But I can’t dismiss it because it was an unforgettable experience.
I would never trade it.
|Luke and I|
A few weeks ago (June 2013) Sally and I took our grandson, Luke, on a
road trip to Mount St. Helens. The Johnston Ridge Observatory sits on a high
vantage point across the valley from the mountain and its enormous crater. The
observatory provides a spectacular view of this incredibly beautiful mountain,
which towers above the landscape. Before the eruption, it would have been even
taller; thirteen hundred feet taller!
The day we were there the weather was clear, the
sky was blue, with enough billowy, white cumulus clouds to enhance the beauty
of the scene, without obscuring the view. It was a day so much like May 18,
1980. We could see inside the eminent, yawning crater left by the eruption. It is almost impossible to comprehend how huge
it is. Downtown Missoula would easily fit inside the crater with room left
over. It is incredible to think that much of the earthen mass missing from that
gaping wound ended up falling on us five hundred miles away as dust.
When Molly was editing this story, she had some memories
of the dinner party at the Wilsons’ abode. She wrote this comment:
I remember complaining about my food and Mom telling me it was normal
[the bits of char from grilling were actually volcanic ash]. I KNEW it wasn’t. And,
I was right! Four-year-olds “know” a lot of things, but this one thing I was
really right about. Beyond the edibility of my burger, I didn’t have any other
anxiety or concern regarding the eruption.