Sunday, May 18, 1980. Mudflows spreading 600 miles per hour. Day turned into night, ash carried into the atmosphere, blanketing the region. This Sunday marks the 28th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption and in memory of this event, three staff and faculty members shared their experience with the famous volcano.
As a student at Western Washington University, professor of English Dr. Paul Lindholdt spent weekends with friends fishing at Blue Lake near Oroville, Wash., by the Canadian border. Lindholdt said he heard the explosion that morning. “We thought it was a mining charge,” he said. “We thought that they were mining in the hills nearby.”
He never imagined it was the volcano hundreds of miles south so he continued fishing until someone brought out a transistor radio and they heard the news. “We thought, ‘Geez, maybe we better leave.’ It sounded so close. It sounded so loud,” he said. The group packed quickly and headed south to Highway 2 to drive over the Cascades.
“Just in the nick of time, we were able to turn over to Highway 2, west of Highway 2 before this mile-high wall of ash – it’s the only way I can talk about it – barreled up and would have engulfed us and, I don’t know, made our throats bloody, disabled our car,” he said.
Lindholdt said he didn’t recall seeing ash in Seattle, but heard other places had inches. “I felt fortunate that prevailing winds kept me from it.”
Back at Eastern, Karen Wichman, director of facility services and a gardener at the time, had a tough battle removing three inches of ash from the campus. She and others worked non-stop for three or four weeks.
“We had everybody doing everything. All of the staff on duty from plumbers, electricians, carpenters, high school kids we could hire part time,” she said. The staff’s greatest concern was that the damaged buildings would implode due to the wet ash, so workers began removing ash from the roofs.
“When it started raining,” Wichman said, “the ash got really heavy and it was clogging up all the roof drains and then we were going to have some real catastrophic damage if we’d left that. So we were hauling ash nonstop, taking buckets up on the roof, shoveling [ash] into five-gallon buckets, lowering it down, dumping it into trucks.”
Wichman described the dry ash like talcum powder that billowed when an object dropped into it. “But when it got wet it created a slurry. It was like pushing thick milk chocolate or something,” she said.
She said she’ll remember the day as the largest “emergency natural disaster” she’s experienced. “I’m just hopeful that it won’t happen again in my lifetime.”
Some of the first information on the ash content came from Eastern’s geology department during a time when people were scared to breathe in the particles. Department Chair William Gilmour, a professor at the time, was working on fossils in the lab when he noticed thick darkness setting in. At first he thought it was a thunderstorm, until he looked out the window.
“Sure enough, there was big black clouds coming,” he said. “It was strange though because it didn’t look like normal storms and I didn’t see any lightning, anything that black.”
Gilmour said it got so dark that the outside lamps turned on. “So I ran outside and it was eerie quiet. No birds or nothing making any noise and then stuff started falling out of the sky.”
He grabbed former professor Mohammed Ikramuddin and told him what was happening. They took samples of the ash every 10 minutes. “I don’t know why, but it seemed like the thing to do, see what was coming down,” Gilmour said.
Ikramuddin took the samples to the lab to examine possible health hazards; perhaps poisons and sharp particles that people could breathe in. “We were scared to death of what the stuff might be,” he said.
“Turns out it was just rock. Just ash. Plain ol’ normal volcanic ash stuff,” he said. The professors alerted local media to inform them what they found.
“Of course, everybody was in panic mode, but some of the very first information on the ash and stuff came right out of the geology [department].”
Later, Gilmour had quite an experience driving home. “Anybody passed you [and] the cloud of ash would go up and visibility was absolutely zero. So we had to stop and people quickly learned to creep by each other.”
Gilmour says it’s a day he’ll never forget.
“It’s interesting how geologists’ minds operated. Here we were taking samples every 10 minutes of something. We didn’t even know what we were doing, but we had a whole series of samples to see if the ash changed over time to figure out what was going on.”