Story #15: A dark cloud line with cotton ball-like swirls

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By Cheryl and Doug Hargin

My soon-to-be husband and I woke up on May 18, 1980, in our campsite at Wanapum State Park in Vantage, Washington. It was a beautiful clear sunny day capping off a great weekend away from college.

As we were packing up our camping gear for our return to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, we noticed something in the distance. It was a strange, dark cloud line over the horizon with cotton ball-like swirls.

As we were heading out of the campground, we asked the ranger if there was a fire nearby or an incoming thunderstorm. He told us, “Mount St. Helens blew.” We were not sure we believed him, so from a nearby pay phone Doug called his roommate back at school to see if there was anything on the news about the volcano. His roommate confirmed the mountain had erupted, the streetlights had come on and birds were singing as if it were nighttime in Ellensburg.

We jumped in the car, knowing we needed to head back. Shortly after getting on the road and making our way west, it progressively got darker, and we began to see ash hitting the windshield like snow.

As each mile went along, conditions got worse until it began to look like we were in a heavy snowstorm. Even though we had the car lights on, we found there were no reflective qualities in the heavy ash. We used the lane reflectors along I-90 to guide us. We began to see cars pulled off along the freeway, and now I was really scared.

A few months leading up to the eruption, geologists had warned of the pre-volcanic activity and speculated that if the mountain were to erupt, it might emit ash like pyroclastic glass that could damage your lungs. Based on this, authorities encouraged the public to pick up masks as a preventive measure for the remote chance the mountain erupted. Recalling that information, we found T-shirts in our gear to wrap around our noses and mouths as we drove.

Further into our trip, we began seeing more and more cars on the side of the road. We weren’t sure if the occupants of the cars pulled over on the side of the road were just having a hard time driving, having car trouble or, worse yet, had succumbed to the toxic ash!

We couldn’t comprehend how day turned into night and were worried we might be found in an archeological dig one day! We learned later the newer-model cars had air cleaners that were clogging with ash, which probably caused them to stall out. Fortunately, our old car had an oil-bath air cleaner.

I don’t recall how long it took us to make the harrowing, 30-mile trip back to Ellensburg, but it seemed like hours. When we arrived back on campus in the middle of the day, the streetlights were on, it was pitch black, and ash was falling like snow.

Phone lines were jammed for days, and I was unable to get my call through to let my parents know I was OK. By the evening of May 18, school officials announced school was closing for the next week.

It was a pretty surreal experience, and now, almost 40 years later, Doug and I still have the old Gallo wine jug we filled up with ash in 1980, the pictures of us and our friends with masks on out in the ash and lots of memories of the event and the aftermath we will never forget.

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