Story #30: Far apart from each other, a family reacts

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By Kim Poole

I grew up in Washington state, but at the time of Mount St. Helens’ eruption, my husband, Keith, and I were living in Provo, Utah.

When I went to work Monday morning at the Orem Public Library, I hadn’t heard about the eruption. A co-worker asked, “Hey, aren’t you from Washington?” and showed me a newspaper. In 1980, society wasn’t as “connected” as it is now. The newspaper stunned me. The article about the previous day’s eruption wasn’t really clear about personal details, but it did show many pictures of devastation, damaged houses, and drifts of volcanic ash.

I was very worried about my family in Yakima and Tri-Cities and phoned my parents as soon as I got off work. I was alarmed they hadn’t called me, but that wasn’t unusual in the days before cell phones. Long distance calls were expensive, and my parents were frugal.

My parents, Harold and Helen Monson, lived in Richland, and were about 150 miles from the blast. They told stories of eerily darkened skies but were not otherwise seriously impacted. My sister, Vicki Moore, lived in Yakima, about halfway between my parents and Mount St. Helens.

Yakima had night sky blackness for at least a day and maybe two or three. They also had a lot of conflicting information about how to deal with all of the ash. There was concern that roofs would collapse under the weight and that it would ruin car engines if you tried to drive through it. I’m certain there was a lot of fear and uncertainty.

Keith had an uncle, Marshall Shelton, who lived near Battle Ground on the “safe” side of the explosion. He had been closely following the excitement of Mount St. Helens’ increasing activity. He was a photographer and hoped to get some good shots of the event when it happened.

The morning of May 18, he was in the shower when his wife called, “You better come quick. I think this is it!” He leaped out of the shower, grabbed his camera and stood on his porch, dripping wet, without a stitch on and taking pictures, and he got some great shots!

By Vicki Moore (Kim’s sister)

When I first saw the black cloud looming, it had a sinister, evil aura. It didn’t look like any thundercloud I had previously seen – a dark, ominous cloud with bright, blue sky surrounding it.

When we heard the warnings on the radio about the mountain, the information was inconsistent, confusing and terrifying. Possible poisonous gas in the air and the ash would destroy lungs, engines, animals and collapse roofs. The reporters struggled for information and were uninformed.

When the day turned darker than a moonless night, I could see the streetlights, but no light emanated from the bulbs. A few lights appeared from across the street, but they were only pinpoints of light in the dark. Creepy.

One of my biggest surprises was the ash was not like ash from a fireplace, but similar to beach sand, and very heavy.

By Brenda Moore (Vicki’s daughter)

On May 18, 1980, when I was 12, I lived in Yakima. I woke up after a fabulous sleepover at my best friend Deborah’s home, where we had a typical night of movies, popcorn and harmless “boy talk.” That morning we were both lying on the couch watching TV in our pajamas when we heard Deborah’s father yell with excitement from the front yard, “Girls, come out here and check out these amazing clouds!” We ran outside and gazed up into the sky to witness the dark, almost black clouds, creeping in at the edge of the sky.

Since Deborah and I were both boisterous drama-queens, we could not hold back from making resounding girlish screams and giggles and created such a commotion that Deborah’s mother soon joined us outside. Once she saw the clouds, she exclaimed with melodrama in her voice, “It’s the end of the world!” and ran back inside without a second glance. Deborah’s father laughed as we screamed in terror at the prospect of Armageddon and simply proclaimed, “Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world, it’s just a good old-fashioned thunderstorm.”

Deborah and I continued to stare in awe of the clouds as they rapidly traveled toward us. We imagined the lightning and thunder that we thought might disperse during its wondrous performance. We hoped to see fingers of electricity dance across the sky and feel the tremors of thunder shake the house. We were amazed with the panoramic view of clouds filling the horizon edge to edge. This was a storm like no other we 12-year olds had ever seen.

Once the clouds covered the area directly above us, we began to feel tiny stings on our arms and face. We were horrified to realize that something was falling from the sky. It was too small to be hail, and it certainly wasn’t rain or snow. Deborah and I screamed in absolute terror and sprinted back inside the house to join her mother while her father, Ken, stayed outside and continued to mow the lawn. Humored by our reaction and wanting to finish the yard before the rain came, Ken simply smirked, shrugged his shoulders and kept pushing.

In the kitchen, Deborah’s mother continued to mumble under her breath that the world was ending. Deborah and I reveled in excitement and peered out the window at the darkening sky from the living-room window. We were anxiously watching and wondering what kind of bizarre storm or event we were about to experience.

The phone rang, and Deborah ran to answer it. It was a Dan, a friend of the family, calling to tell us that Mount St. Helens erupted and volcanic ash was beginning to fall from the sky.

When Deborah finally hung up the phone, I tried to call my parents. By that time, the phone lines were down, and I couldn’t get through. I dialed and dialed with panic in my heart but always received the same message: “All circuits are busy.” I was terrified that my cat was outside, and I had no way of knowing if he was safe.

The TV news coverage had started and warned, “Absolutely do not drive your car or go outside!” They explained that the volcanic ash would destroy a car’s air filter and would be extremely hazardous to breathe.

We placed a white paper plate outside and watched the black ash cover it in minutes. We were experiencing a jet-black, summertime blizzard.

Eventually the entire sky turned as dark as the open country on a moonless night. Street lights began to come on, and the houses across the street were barely visible. This complete blackout lasted for hours.

We were trapped inside and had nothing to do but play board games with her family. The phone didn’t work, and the TV was constant mountain coverage and warnings.

After two days, I was able to return home to my family. My fearless father had risked the car damage and came to pick me up.

I was amazed as he drove through the streets. Inches of ash covered everything. People were outside in their yards shoveling it like snow. It was extremely heavy, and I watched people painfully bend over and shovel small sections at a time. It took days for people to completely shovel driveways, roofs and sidewalks. Large piles of ash lined the neighborhood curbs in mounds as big as commercial garbage dumpsters.

School was canceled in the city for the rest of the year. I felt sad for the kids who missed their graduation celebrations and proms. I was in the fifth grade, so I didn’t miss anything noteworthy. To me, it was simply three bonus weeks of summer vacation.

For the next two weeks, anytime we went outside we wore white respirator masks over our noses and mouths. Volcanic ash was still floating in the air.

Eventually, life in Yakima returned to normal. Cars were driven again, masks were put away, and the city’s grassy lawns and flowers began to show again.

A tiny trace of ash still remains in some fields and vacant lots in Yakima. But although most of the ash evidence has finally disappeared, the memory of that amazing day will always be as vivid to me as yesterday.

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