Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Remembering Mount St. Helens

Today (okay, yesterday, I’m always behind in this kind of thing) marks the 30th anniversary of the major eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. I remember May 18, 1980 vividly, and I recall the mountain before and after that day, too.

It was a Saturday, and I woke up late at my fraternity house in Corvallis, Oregon. As I approached the breakfast table a fellow Delta Chi asked if I’d heard that “Mount St. Helens has been going [off] all day.” A major eruption had been expected for some time, since flurries of minor earthquakes and steam and ash plumes had riveted the attention of geologists, politicians, and emergency personnel months earlier.

Everyone in the frat house was gathered in the television room of our house mom, with their jaws on the floor. No wonder. The aerial footage of the ongoing cataclysm was mind-boggling. What I recall most is seeing an entire forest, or what used to be a forest, barreling downstream on the Tuttle River, which had become a wall of water, mud, and volcanic ash. It looked like the Devil had thrown everything into the Blender From Hell.

Later, we learned of just how immense the event was, and how widespread the damage. The ash cloud had blown east, plunging Spokane, Washington into total darkness at midday, and threatening to suffocate anyone who ventured outside. The “blast zone” was marked by trees mowed over like….well, it defies words.

Seventy-one people perished in this nature-gone-nuclear event, most still officially “missing” because recovery was just impossible. One individual, reporter Dave Crockett of KOMO TV in Seattle, miraculously escaped death, but he couldn’t believe it himself. “At this moment,” he huffed and puffed from the ash-thickened air, “I honest to God believe I’m dead.” The images from his video camera actually seemed to verify that conclusion. A dim, distant light in an otherwise totally black screen suggested that characteristic “tunnel” that those who have near-death experiences report on the other side of their ordeal.

The aftermath of the eruption was felt throughout the Pacific Northwest. Volcanic ash, which amounts to pulverized glass, fell everywhere; and prompted outdoor workers to don filter masks throughout the summer when diminished rainfall let the dust become airborne once again. I had to do that myself, working the summer installing office furniture.

The show was not over, either. The mountain spouted off again in the late afternoon of July 22, 1980. While the May 18 event had been shrouded in the usual overcast skies, the July display was visible for miles. Rush hour traffic came to a standstill as motorists gawked in amazement at the mushroom cloud over the summit (now nearly 2,000 feet lower in elevation than before the May 18 eruption). Indeed, I was in the car with my mother and stepfather, and we decided we’d dash up I-5 for a better look (Mt. St. Helens is roughly fifty miles North-Northeast of Portland).

Beyond the horrors of the natural disaster, the chronicling of the story introduced us all to a myriad of human characters, like the cantankerous Harry Truman, resident of Spirit Lake, who refused to obey evacuation orders prior to the eruption. The story educated us by explaining terms like “pyroclastic flow” and “lava dome.” To this day the mountain landscape demonstrates the resilience of nature, even after it is quite literally paved over. It also inspired artists and writers. I wrote this poem sometime after May 18, 1980:

The Last Day of Mount St. Helens

Peaceful sloping hill in May
With somber tones of brown and gray
That do not fortell
Of disaster yet to come this day.
Eight twenty-nine and all is well,
Then gentle, sleeping mountainside
Comes unglued in massive slide.
A giant terrestrial tidal wave
Lays seventy-one in an ashen grave.
Sandy taste and sulfur smell
Hands each of us a piece of Hell.

I sometimes still prefer to remember Mount St. Helens from a trip to the “Ape Caves” led by my high school biology teacher, Karen Wallace, one Saturday in 1978(?). It was still the familiar “ice cream cone” summit back then, still a forested wilderness. There is no going back now, of course, and I have to wonder how many people get to witness a volcanic eruption in their lifetime. Geologic events generally happen on a geologic time scale, and one has to appreciate the natural and historical elements of such phenomena.

I am very interested to hear about your memories of that monumental day, or your memories of the mountain in general. Please share them here.

1 comment:

  1. Although my husband and I were serving in the Peace Corps Africa at the time of the eruption, we are from WA so had a keen interest in the happenings. As soon as we could upon returning home, we visited Mount St. Helens and were amazed at the dismal sights we saw. I've done a lot of research of the mountain and have written a novel with a sub-plot of MSH. I took the actual events surrounding the eruption and wove a story around it. "Tenderfoot" is doing quite well and I've been fortunate with the interest shown.