Story #26: Winter wonderland, but hot

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East of Moses Lake, the Mitchell family awoke May 18, 1980, to what appeared to be “a winter wonderland.” Patty and Dave’s children (ages 2 and 4) couldn’t understand why they couldn’t go outside to play. Within days, running out of food and supplies, the young family joined a convoy of volcano refugees heading to Seattle. (Patti Mitchell)
By Patti L. Mitchell

I was in Moses Lake when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. We heard about the volcano on the radio and looked out to the west and saw the black clouds and lightning coming toward us. The sky was ablaze with dry lightning.

The sky ablaze. (Patti Mitchell)

By noon it was pitch dark, and it rained ash on us all day. We kept hearing reports that the ash was dangerous, so we stayed inside. We couldn’t turn the air conditioning on and it was between 80 and 90 degrees. I had two kids to entertain inside (ages 2 and 4), and they couldn’t understand the darkness and why they couldn’t go outside.

We went to bed that night and woke up to a winter wonderland. Only it wasn’t winter. It was hot.

We lived in the country, about six miles east of Moses Lake on acreage about 50 miles from the deepest ash fall in Ritzville (six inches). Our yard and roof got six inches of ash.

It didn’t take us long to figure out that we weren’t going to easily clean this up. It wasn’t like the ash you get in your fireplace. This had the consistency of fine white powder that would fly up in your face when you stepped on it. But when it got wet, it was like dealing with wet concrete. It was so fine that only certain types of masks were guaranteed not to allow the ash to get into the alveoli in your lungs and damage them. We didn’t have any of those masks, so we had to stay inside. No cars had been on the road because reports were that if this ash got in your carburetors, it would burn them up. We watched the news reports showing cars littering the sides of the road.

We couldn’t go outside, and our supplies were running out. We wanted to take pictures of it all but were out of film (before digital). We needed masks, but we had to get in a car to go buy some. We heard Moses Lake was out of the 3M masks, so the only ones available were in Seattle.

We heard about a convoy leaving from Moses Lake to Seattle. They would have water trucks that would water the road down until the cars got out of the ash area. The only problem was that we had to get to the start of the convoy line on the other side of Moses Lake.

We packed up the car, put cloth masks – all we had – on the kids and us and we got into the older of the two cars. It was over 90 degrees, hot and miserable. I was scared that the car would suddenly stop and I would be stuck on the freeway with the two young kids.

We headed out and started onto the highway and hit an ash drift, which was a couple of feet deep. The car stopped, and the ash powder filtered through the car. David was able to start the car again, and we drove slowly through the ash. We were lucky that the old Datsun wasn’t dying on us.

Driving along Interstate 90. (Patti Mitchell)

The highway (Interstate 90 in Moses Lake) was totally deserted and white with inches of ash. During the past week, no food or supply deliveries had made it to Moses Lake or anywhere east of us.

We finally made it to the convoy meeting place. There were probably 100 cars waiting for the water trucks. The water trucks watered down the roads, and we all made it out of the area. We had a makeshift car-top carrier that David had made, and it still had ash in it. As we drove down Interstate 405 from Monroe to Seattle, our car and others’ had ash blowing off like snow.

We stayed at my mom and dad’s in Issaquah for a week. We bought the 3M masks, got film, extra food and supplies and decided we had to go back and clean off the roof and yard and get on with our life.

A week after the May 18, 1980, eruption, the Mitchells returned home with supplies, including 3M masks to protect them from breathing in ash. Dave filled “wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow” with ash cleared from the roof and yard, while Patti had “calluses on my calluses” from helping haul the loads. (Patti Mitchell)
Patti Mitchell in her backyard. (Dave Mitchell)

We got back home and started working. David and I would take wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow off the roof and yard. We made a huge pile of ash. I had calluses on my calluses! The neighbors finally got a tractor out to clear people’s driveways and roads, so that really helped.

For months after the volcano explosion, every time the wind would blow, the air would turn white like a blizzard. At the end of the summer, David took a job over in the Seattle area working at North Seattle Community College, so we got off our ash and moved to Snohomish!

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