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#OnThisDay: May 18, 1980, Mount Saint Helen Blows

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USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Austin Post

May 18, 1980Boom!

We had only been a couple for a few months. My boyfriend (decades away from being my husband) and I only knew one other male couple in the world, friends from the theatre world.

Our first apartment was a breathtaking find, the top floor of a late 19th century mansion in the Browne’s Addition neighborhood of Spokane. Our living room was the vast former ballroom with a large balcony and the rest of our digs were the former servants quarters, a warren of small rooms tucked under the eaves. This section of the apartment ended with a large screened in summer porch. We paid an unheard of $200 a month to live in this luxury. Our friends thought we were nutty to spend so much.

Our first place, Browne’s Addition, Spokane, photo by S. Rutledge

We wanted our male couple friends to see our unusual, exclusive penthouse, and they were invited to brunch on a beautiful, warm spring Sunday morning. This couple was impressed with the living quarters and the meal. As we walked them to their automobile and hugged good-bye, we all looked at the western horizon. In the distance, the sky was a curtain of an uncommon grey and green. We all remarked at the weird weather coming our way.

We would soon learn that at 8:33am, Mount Saint Helens had blown its top in an unprecedented (in modern times) eruption of an active volcano in the Pacific Northwest. Within an hour, the city’s street lights had come on and by noon it looked like midnight. At 3pm the ash was mid-calf deep and it covered everything. We were getting conflicting directives from emergency authorities: don’t drive, wear a mask or protection- it will get in your lungs, don’t sweep it, don’t get it wet, hose it down, sweep it into piles, don’t panic, it can kill you. The fire stations issued masks. We were quick to get to the store and stock up on wine and pizza.

We spent three days locked in our apartment, listening to music, drinking wine, and making love. The ash would eventually permeate everything. It got into my considerably large album collection, including all of my obscure Original Cast recordings of Broadway Musicals. The ash got into the sleeves of the LPs and scratched the vinyl. The volcano’s spewing would lay waste to my music collection and it ruined my future husband’s work computer (which was the size of a large room).

We spotted drifts of the ash on the side of roads in Washington and Oregon for decades. The only good news: the ash was the perfect compound for pottery making, and an entire Mount Saint Helens ashtray industry was born.

The eruption was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the USA. 57 people were killed; 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, 185 miles of highway were destroyed. Within moments of eruption, the whole northern side of the mountain slid away—the largest observed landslide on record. The eruption reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 feet to 8,365 feet and replacing it with a one mile wide horseshoe-shaped crater.The eruption lasted nine hours, followed by more eruptions over the next six yearsMore than two-thirds of a cubic mile of rock was ejected and pulverized to ash, which blasted up to 16 miles into the atmosphereThe ash-cloud was 10 miles wide, and the mushroom top was 40 miles wide and 15 miles highWinds in the atmosphere dispersed the ash eastward at 60 mph, blanketing 11 states and several Canadian provinces with dust.

The ash was carried east all the way to Europe. It made for spectacular sunsets around the world for more than a year.

That night of the eruption, when we went to bed and physically expressed our love for each other, my future husband, bit my ear gently and whispered: ”Did the earth move for you, baby?”

We have a peek-a-boo view of the Mount Saint Helens from our house in Portland and I spy it often while driving around Portland, sometimes spewing out some steam. Mount Hood, also an active volcano is even closer to Portland. It is one of five active volcanoes in a hundred miles of our house. The Husband and I have aged 38 years since the big boom. We are considerably older and not nearly as frisky, but you never know when the mountain will blow again… “Did the earth move for you, baby?”

USGS Photograph

 


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