By Randy Brawley
May 18 started like any other beautiful Sunday morning. I had to be to work at Rock Island Dam by 7 a.m. to start my morning shift. The dam is 12 miles south of Wenatchee on the Columbia River. I was 28.
As a shift worker, I was to work this day as a “short change day,” meaning I had to work the day shift, be off for eight hours, then return for the graveyard shift at 11 p.m. Perfect morning to take out my special, fair-weather car – never driven in rain, snow or other bad weather – and then back home in the afternoon. Or so I thought.
At work with a crew of only four other workers on shift, a coworker and I were making our morning inspection rounds outside. Shortly after 8:30 a.m., we heard three loud noises, and we both said, “Sounds like a shotgun. Someone is shooting at pigeons” below the dam. So we were off to investigate.
Finding no one, we returned to the control room, and the two operators asked us if we were shooting at pigeons on the tailrace. We told them no and said we thought it was one of them. (Bird control was allowed back then.)
One operator said, “Well, it sure was loud, and you should probably get all your outside duties done because it looks like a major storm cloud heading this way from the south.”
It was 9:15 a.m., and there still was no word about the eruption. We returned to our duties, and I put my special car under cover, as we saw what we thought was a thundercloud getting closer.
Then we got a call on the radio to return to the control room ASAP. The operators had just been notified from our headquarters dispatch that Mount St. Helens had a huge eruption, and the ash cloud was heading our way fast. We needed to close all windows and doors and shut down the outside ventilation systems at both powerhouses.
It was then that we realized the blasts we heard were from the mountain exploding. Those blasts were from more than 270 miles away to the southwest, and the basalt cliffs lining the Columbia river had funneled the sound to our dam.
Ash was beginning to fall, and it was getting darker, plus very odd-looking outside. We got respirators from the tool room for everyone. One hour later it was pitch dark, and all the outside lights came on. The ash became very heavy and was coating everything. The operators were very worried that the power transformers and power-line insulators could flash over and cause major problems.
The river above the dam, called the forebay, was completely covered with floating ash as far as we could see. By now, at hour four, we had about three inches of ash, and it was not letting up. We could see some cars on the highway having problems due to the very poor visibility and blowing ash. Still very dark.
Hour eight: I knew I was not going to be able to drive home for a short break and then return. So I stayed at the dam waiting for the swing shift crew, if they could make it in to work. The State Patrol had the road blocked and was not letting anyone drive through from Quincy to the town of Rock Island. We were in the middle. Very eerie out, birds were not flying, and some were dying.
The swing shift made it in to work but had to show the State Patrol ID that they worked at the dam. After we briefed the new crew and heard that Wenatchee had some ash but it was a lot worse for us, other crewmembers decided to try to make the drive to Wenatchee. I found a place to take a nap in the first-aid room and stayed until my graveyard shift started at 11 p.m.
Graveyard shift was pretty uneventful, other than we needed to clean up ash around the dam. Respirators were needed if we went outside because it was windy and ash was blowing everywhere, like a whiteout snowstorm. The smell was almost overpoweringly sulfur.
My shift was coming to an end at 7 a.m. on May 19, so I planned to return to Wenatchee as the road was pretty clear and reopened. Not wanting my special car to suck ash into the engine. I attached two dust-type respirators to the intake in front of the normal air filter. This worked, and I got home with no problem. There was no one else on the road driving to Wenatchee. It was the end to a very long, stressful day.