The two-word headline in the Yakima Herald-Republic, in red ink magnified to World War III-sized font, would tell the story succinctly the next morning.
“She” was Mount St. Helens, and the eruption on May 18, 1980 — 40 years ago Monday — remains one of those indelible events in my life, right up there with JFK’s assassination in 1963, the Moon landing in 1969 and the terrorist attacks in 2001.
Or, for that matter, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, which in retrospect has some echoes of the volcanic jolt four decades ago — at least for those of us who were in direct line of the massive ash fall.
In the initial days, the uncertainty, and even panic, was pervasive. No one knew when life would return to normal. People hoarded food and other supplies, scrambled to obtain face masks and complained about the government’s response. Businesses closed. Students stayed home from schools. Sporting events were postponed.
And health fears made everyone tense. The ash that was cascading down like snowfall — was it radioactive? Would breathing it damage our lungs?
But when I awoke that Sunday in 1980, I had none of those thoughts — only the most severe disorientation I have ever experienced. I was 22, barely eight months into my first job out of college as a sportswriter at the Herald-Republic. I had worked past midnight the previous night, as was always the case on Saturday, helping to put out the paper while frantically taking high-school results over the phone in the myriad boys and girls spring sports. I still look back fondly at the staff camaraderie and adrenaline-inducing thrill of staring down deadline on nights like that.
After winding down after work with fellow sportswriter Don Shelton and some others — a cold beverage or two might have been involved — I didn’t get to sleep until past 2, which means I didn’t wake up until about noon.
I’ll never forget that unsettling moment for as long as I live. I looked outside, and it was pitch black and eerily quiet. Streetlights were on. Birds were silent. Crickets were chirping, thinking it was night. I looked at my watch and saw it was 12. I was utterly confused. My first panicky thought was that it was midnight. I must have somehow slept through the entire day and missed my Sunday shift that started at 4 p.m.
I frantically called up Don, who would go on to become my boss as sports editor and then executive editor at The Seattle Times. He filled me in: Mount St. Helens, which had been percolating ever since March, had finally blown her top — literally, as it turned out.
Yes, I had slept through it all — the eruption at 8:32 a.m. that released 24 megatons of thermal energy, or 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, with a roar heard 200 miles away. I had slept right through the onslaught of the cloud of ash, roughly 40 miles wide and 15 miles high, which those Yakima Valley residents who were already awake — many on the way to or already at church — thought was a pending thunderstorm. That assumption was enhanced by the sight of bolts of cobalt blue lightning, a weird atmospheric phenomenon caused by chemical reactions to the scalding ash.
Moving at an average speed of 60 miles an hour, and guided by winds that sent it on a direct path toward Yakima in an east-northeasterly direction, the ash cloud (which would eventually drop 540 million tons of its handiwork across the state, region, country and eventually the world, 600,000 tons of it in our little town) — sprinted the 85 miles or so to Yakima and reached the city by 9:45 a.m., turning day into night.
All of which, of course, I was oblivious to as I blissfully sawed logs. As I would learn later, the first sporting event would be affected almost immediately. The Yakima Invitational men’s Class AA fast-pitch softball tournament was just starting games that morning when ash began to pour down.
“They turned on the lights because it got so dark,” tournament announcer Ruth Isaak told Don for his story in Monday’s paper. “In five minutes time, it was coming down like crazy.”
Tournament director Cress Bradford, after huddling with umpires and tournament officials, and hearing a news bulletin about the possible dangers of being outdoors during the fallout and watching players thereby scattering, ordered what Shelton termed the world’s first “ash-out” — or at least since Vesuvius.
“I told everybody, ‘Hell, I don’t know what to do. I’ve never been around a volcano before,’ ” Bradford told our paper. “I’ve been rained out. I’ve had hail and sleet and things like that come down, too. But nothing like this.”
Eventually I got my bearings and rode my bike into work — it was too dangerous to drive in the blackout conditions. But not before exploring the surreal scene with a bandanna over my mouth, which was agape over the apocalyptic landscape in front of me.
Over the next few days, as Yakima dug itself out, I would spend much of my work hours making calls to find out the status of sporting events, especially the upcoming high-school state tournaments in baseball, softball, track and field, tennis and golf, and the Northwest Community College Conference baseball tournament, which was supposed to start Thursday at Parker Field in Yakima.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t. Sporting events were postponed, postponed again, and then again, some canceled, some moved to the other side of the state — all except the 15th Annual World Championship Jeep Rodeo, which its organizer said would go on as scheduled in nearby Toppenish.
After 40 years, some of my memories are hazy, while others remain vivid. I remember entrepreneurs swooping in to collect jars of ash to sell across the state for a quick buck. I remember the speed limit in town being set at 15 mph to keep ash from being kicked up. I remember being told to fill our bathtubs with water just in case the ash was radioactive. I remember being glued to radio station KIT for updates at a time when there was no internet, or even personal computers, to check, hard as that might be to imagine.
I remember that pantyhose, of all things, was discovered to be the best tool for filtering out volcanic ash — but the makeshift pantyhose air filter I fashioned didn’t save my beloved red 1975 Fiat sedan, which conked out a month later, choked to death by ash. I remember the frenetic cleanup efforts, which turned out to be a pretty good example of people working together for the common good.
And as I remember, life in Yakima — the self-proclaimed Palm Springs of Washington, or as we snidely called it, Yaki-Vegas — returned to more or less normal after a couple weeks. And this is where the comparison to the age of coronavirus falls apart. The ash was pushed into gigantic piles, the air eventually cleared, stores and school reopened, sporting events started up again. The health effects of all that ash turned out to be minimal. Panic quickly lifted, and routines were re-established.
But those of us who lived through the stunning eruption of Mount St. Helens will never, ever forget the day she blew.