Being There: First Hand Accounts of Mt. St. Helens

On May 18, 1980, after almost two months of increasingly violent activity, Mt. St. Helens erupted in southwest Washington State. In an instant, it devastated more than 200 miles of lives, land, and livelihoods from the mountain blast site.

Source: USGS

I am fortunate enough to know Landon Curt Noll – mathematician, astronomer, vulcanologist – who happened to be on the volcano site (1.5km away) doing field research as a college student. He agreed to chat with me about it, and was kind enough to allow me to record it.

After I posted the video to YouTube, a friend of mine, Mark Carlson, sent me a copy of Ellen L. Carlson (his late mother’s) first hand account of her experience being caught in the eruption. With his permission, I am including the entirety of her account (it’s riveting).

Here is the video with Landon:

A note about the video: I recorded it because I thought that people who might want to know what happened that day, and how volcanoes work, might find it interesting. I found it fascinating. Landon discusses the events that lead up to the actual eruption, as well as what was going on underneath the earth.

It was only supposed to be a recording of the conversation, but as he started talking I began researching some of the things that he was talking about, and decided to include some images of relevant items. It’s by no means as polished as many of the videos you’ll find nowadays, but perhaps you’ll find it useful.

Ellen C. Carlson

As I said, Mark forwarded me a mimeograph copy of his mother’s account of being on the mountain. Once I started reading, I simply couldn’t stop. His mother was a really good writer, and I’m grateful for his sharing her story.

With his permission, I’m including it here, in its entirety. Additional images are added by me.

It all began with the dismissal bell at the school where my friend Peggy Hoagland and I teach. We had special permission to leave early on this Friday, so we made our exit with the students, got into to my new 1980 auto and headed across town to pick up another friend, Pat Plumb. Our destination was Cispus Environmental Center 10 miles south of Randle, Washington, our purpose was to spend the weekend learning to identify wildflowers of the area.

Mt. St. Helens on May 17, 1980, the day Ellen went looking for wildflowers

This class would have been a terrific weekend experience anytime but this year there was added anticipation. Mt. Saint Helens, 20 miles to the south of Cispus, had been spitting steam and ash since March. Its earthquakes had increased in numbers and a protrusion near Goat Rock on the northeast side have been growing 6 feet each day. The Mt.ain had been quiet for several days but scientists were being cautious this weekend as the seasons lowest tides were scheduled for May 21 and just perhaps, the gravitational pull might cause an eruption. Maybe we could be spectators, from a distance, of course.

As we drove over Blewett Pass we pointed out all the patches of color marking wildflowers along the roadside. The greens of the Mt.ain soon gave way to the grassy hills of cattle country near Ellensburg and we enjoyed seeing the masses of flowers covering the entire landscape. This certainly was the year for wildflowers! We stopped to eat in Ellensburg, then headed on to Yakima. As we turned west over White Pass, the shadows were lengthening but we still excitedly called attention to a clump of yellow balsam here, or a patch of wild purple iris there. The beauty of the clean water, tall trees, the greenery and the tingly fresh Mt.ain air promised us the most rewarding weekend. At Randle we entered the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and drove 10 miles over a paved but winding road, reaching Cispus in time for the last half of our first class.

Saturday morning we woke early for a 6 AM hike to begin identifying 50 wildflowers which was the goal for the weekend. The path was interrupted where the creek had undercut the bank, causing three trees with their root systems exposed, to lie horizontal. The professor picked up a handful of pumice cinders from a layer measuring at least 2 feet, and announced that this was courtesy of St. Helens on one of her previous significant eruptions. Further on down the trail we found a layer of white ash along the bank. This was also attributed to the mountain.

After lunch we piled into vans operated by the center and headed up early mountain to find wildflowers that grew in higher environments. Our first stop brought inquiries about viewing Mt. Saint Helens and wildflowers were postponed while we headed for Pinto Rock in the lookout station. The road was a typical Mt.ain road, two ruts with a few turnouts. Passing cars waited at wide places so our vans could pass. On reaching the Pinto Rock area we had a clear view of St. Helens, 15 miles to the south. There she stood, a great, grey, black peak with patches of white steam clouds hovering on the east and northwest sides, quite a contrast to beautiful, sparkling, gleaming white Mt. Adams to the east. We took pictures of both Mt.ains, identified a few plants and before starting down, decided to collect some bits of ash from last week’s “cough” for a fellow teacher who had been so excited about the Mt.ain that he had wanted to rent a plane and fly over it. We shook ash from many strawberry leaves and pinched minute quantities off rocks to get enough for our film canister.

After the exhilarating view of the volcano and the trip down the mountain road with a drop off on the right and rocks on the left, the wildflowers suddenly seemed anticlimactic.

We arrived back at camp, a dusty, grimy group. There was now time for a shower and a review of our specimens before dinner and our evening class. It suddenly occurred to me that the gas tank was almost empty and that there was a good possibility that the only gas station in Randle might not be open on Sunday. Pat and I made a quick trip into town, learning all the twists and turns of the road, and after purchasing gas, pop and snacks, made it back just in time for dinner.

What it might have looked like from Ellen’s POV

Sunday we decide to skip the early morning hike in order to serve on K.P. and pack up our belongings. After breakfast we swept out the dorm and loaded the car so we could spend the next 30 minutes reviewing specimens for the test. As I closed the car trunk I turned around, looked up, and saw beautiful, awesome blue grey cloud billowing up over the tops of the evergreens. It resembled a monstrous dark storm cloud but there was no question about it, Mt. Saint Helens had erupted!

I called to Peggy to get her camera and to Pat and the others in the dorm. About this time the fire siren sounded, which only increased my adrenaline. The cloud was silently moving swiftly over our camp, hiding the sun and at this point, creating the impression of a rainstorm about to happen. I heard the rumble of thunder but later Pat said it was the earthquake sound. We felt no quake and heard no blast. The showers began but instead of rain, we got hot mud balls and rocks. We three ex-wildflower enthusiasts jumped into the car and headed out of camp, across those 10 miles to town faster than I would ever want to say. The rocks were bouncing off my new car with increasing frequency but the mud balls would plop and stay. I was afraid to turn on the windshield wipers for fear that of a big smear which would totally destroy the visibility, so I moved about peering through the decreasing clean areas. The windshield brought to mind a glass floored chicken coop with us vainly peeking through.

We were about a mile from Randle when it became apparent we were not going to outrun this cloud. The daylight was totally gone and we were in pitch blackness. Peggy suggested turning on the radio because everyone knows radio is first with the news. Maybe there would be some information to help us make a decision as to whether to go west or east when we would reach the highway. It was Sunday morning and all we could get was a preacher who, in a low pitched voice, proclaimed, “and now, for the Lamentations of Jeremiah!”

We reached Randle to find the store, the tavern, and the gas station closed and deserted. After a short deliberation, we turned east and headed for Packwood. It was still total darkness but the rocks had stopped falling and there were fewer mud balls but ash was falling like rain. Visibility was zero so I tried to follow taillights on a pickup ahead of me but lost them in the dust. Ash had now covered all lines and marks on the road. The shoulder and road looked alike, the only identifying marks were the reflector signs but they were visible only 4 feet away. We were now traveling 6 mph and still that was too fast. I turned left and ran off the road onto the shoulder. No big problem, I just couldn’t get the car to move in either reverse or forward.

She was lucky she didn’t encounter one of these

There we were, safe inside a clean car, wearing paint masks that I had thought to bring. We knew we could survive even though lightning was striking all around and thunder clapped in our ears. Not knowing how long this black cloud would be with us, we searched the heavens for signs of daylight. Instead we saw sparkly pyroclastics, reminding us of stars.

Each time a car would pass we would blink our lights and get out to hail down a passing motorist. Finally a pickup, followed by a car, stopped and offered us rides to Packwood. We were delighted to see to classmates in the car and the pickup held a good Samaritan from the trout farm which is 2 miles closer to the mountain than Cispus is. He had smelled a strong odor of sulfur and headed for town in a hurry.

At Packwood the army was out with blinking lights, beaconing us into the community center. There we found other refugees, mostly residents who felt safer there than at home. There did seem to be safety in numbers. We wandered around engaging others in conversation. Talking to strangers is not at all difficult when you have a common experience.

Ash particles are particularly dangerous as they’re fine as dust and sharp as broken glass

Later that evening we were joined by another classmate. Now there were six comrades in dust. The light had returned but the dust in the air resembled a dense fog and we can no longer even guess the time of day. Our stomachs however were on time and having missed one meal, now demanded attention. Fortunately, the restaurants in Packwood stayed open and we found one that served fresh mountain berry pie. This was a terrific boost to our spirits, not just the pie, but being around people who were doing normal things. We watched news coverage on TV there and felt really left out. After all, we were making news too and no mention was made of all the stranded people on White Pass.

After dinner we were sent to the elementary school gym. I found the service station across the street with a helpful attendant who went out with his four-wheel-drive and rescued Miss Monday, my car. We now had sleeping bags and toothbrushes.

Packwood received about 6 inches of ash, consequently, walking across the street was like walking in slush except it was dry. I thought of what it must be like to be a spider in a vacuum cleaner dust bag. Everything was grey! What a sharp contrast to our first trip through the town on Friday night.

Some areas were covered in ash as tall as the average man

The air in the gym was thick with dust and since we had nothing better to do we mopped the floor. The Red Cross arrived about midnight with cots and blankets. The truck had come from Portland and the driver had the nerve to tell us he was going back that night and we couldn’t get out of town.

On Monday the mountain blew three more times and visibility was absolutely zero although it did not get pitch dark again. We were not too eager to leave in that dust storm. Boredom and cabin fever overtook us so we tightened our facemasks and ventured out to the local trading post for magazines, snacks, and check-cashing. One of our members spotted a vacancy sign at the picturesque old Packwood Inn. Sure enough, there were three rooms, hot water and antique beds, so we quickly produced Visa cards and moved in. Hair that seemed plastered with cement finally got washed but still felt like straw.

Mike Fitzpatrick, Right, and Bob Muller wear handkerchiefs for protection from ash.
They were heading home in Missoula, Mont, May 19, 1980 while volcanic residue filtered down into the streets. The Associated Press

Tuesday we awoke to the blue skies and we could see the gray trees and mountains behind the school. We talked to a mountain climber who would been at the 13,000 foot level on Mt. Rainier when St. Helens blew. They mentioned that they hadn’t heard the blast but had watched silently for a few moments before making a record-breaking descent to Paradise.

What the hiker might have seen

We checked out of the hotel and walked back to the school for breakfast and to discuss our plans for the great escape. To our surprise, the authorities were quite negative about having us leave. In fact they convinced Pat that she would be safer there. Since there were now three cars, six women, two young men who have been hitchhiking on Sunday and who had been a real help around the school, and one man who claimed to be a mechanic, we felt our entourage would get through. We finally talked Pat into venturing as far as Randle. Previous traffic and snowplows have removed much of the 6 inches and we went through in good shape, stopping in Morton to blow off the air filter again. At Mary’s Corner we stopped for a final farewell and a promise to exchange pictures, then headed for Centralia and Chehalis where we had the oil and filters changed and the exterior washed down. We are back to green country and clean air and the trip home over Steven’s Pass is beautiful, even in the ruin.

We are all a little gun shy over sonic booms and dark clouds and each night we watch the weather forecaster who indicates the wind direction over St. Helens. Looking back over the experience I’d say it was an awesome exciting, once-in-a-lifetime happening. (Let’s hope!) We are thankful that the cloud of ash went east instead of west as it did the second Sunday, because nobody would’ve been able to escape the floods in the river valleys to the west. While inconvenienced, we did experience the frustration of not being in control of our destinies and can now better empathize with other refugees.

Devastation caused by the floods

Free firewood! Except the trees are embedded with sandpaper-like ash. Note the construction vehicles tossed on their sides like toys

Ash under a microscope

After the eruption. Compare to the earlier photo from May 17.

Special, heartfelt gratitude goes to both Landon Noll and Mark Carlson for donating their time and personal memories to this blog.

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