Mount St. Helens and the Fear of Not Knowing

In the era before cellphones and Twitter, awaiting a looming dark cloud of volcanic ash was full of anxiety and wonder—then the sky turned black.

Dark clouds of ash hang over Ephrata, Washington, on May 18, 1980.
Dark clouds of ash hang over Ephrata, Washington, on May 18, 1980. (Mike Cash / AP)

Yesterday, thousands of miles away from me, a volcano in Hawaii erupted violently. Moments later, the phone in my pocket buzzed with an alert, Twitter notified me, friends on Slack pinged me, and within minutes I joined thousands of other curious people across the planet, watching someone livestream the eruption of Kilauea.

The giant stack of technology that our apps and browsers feed on has made this sort of magical instant-sharing so commonplace that immediacy has become our expectation. Geologists in Hawaii had to ask for patience on Twitter, responding to requests clamoring for images and video, explaining that they were busy monitoring instruments, which took priority over streaming video on limited bandwidth.

Thirty-eight years ago today, a different volcano erupted, and it plunged thousands into darkness in Washington state, both literally and figuratively. I was 12 years old at the time, living with my mother and brother in a house on a hill north of Spokane, Washington, about 250 miles east of the volcano. We had little idea of what was coming our way. For those of us who were affected by the massive volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens, there were few ways to get immediate news or reliable information.

It was the morning of May 18, 1980, a Sunday. I remember it being a warm and dry. We were having a late breakfast and listening to the radio, when the DJ stopped the music and started reading news reports about the eruption. That was when the fear and anxiety first started to creep in. We had heard stories for a few months about Mount St. Helens, how it had been rumbling, and had erupted once or twice, but only emitted small clouds of steam and ash. This time was different. It was spitting out an enormous and growing cloud of ash and God-knows-what-else, and that dark cloud was headed straight toward us.

Keep in mind that this was 1980—cellphones did not exist, the web had not yet been invented, and there were no 24-hour news channels. There was literally no way for us to see what was happening at the volcano. Our best sources of news were the radio speakers and our own eyes, as we stood on our porch and looked nervously at the horizon to the west.

Local TV stations interrupted shows once or twice to let us know the volcano had erupted, but they had less information than the radio stations did. News reports were telling us that the volcano was unrecognizable after the explosive eruption, and that a massive, thick column of ash was billowing miles into the sky. We didn’t really know what that meant, but it was coming in our direction. We had never seen such a thing before, and didn’t have any real context, only our imagination. Everyone was told to stay home, seek cover, and stay indoors.

Things were sounding scarier by the minute.

Hosts, local officials, and callers spoke on the radio for hours as we waited. Frightening concepts were discussed, like the possibility of multiple feet of ash falling from the sky and burying us. Or, maybe the ash cloud might be laden with toxic gases that might poison us all. Or perhaps the tiny ash particles would have sharp edges and would tear up our lungs. Or—scariest of all—maybe the ash might have so much sulfur content that it could turn to sulfuric acid when it became wet.

All we could do was seal up the house as tight as possible and wait. It was both nerve-wracking and dreadfully boring at the same time. The radio told us that ash was passing over Yakima, and we heard people talk about how dark it became. A little after noon, we stepped out on the porch and could see a dark cloud approaching on the horizon. It wasn’t like any storm cloud I’d ever seen, more like a black curtain drawing closer. We hadn’t heard any confirmed reports about poisonous gases, so we hoped for the best.

A dark ash cloud from the Mt. St. Helens eruption looms over the horizon on May 18, 1980, at Fairchild Air Force Base.
An ash cloud from the Mount St. Helens eruption looms over the horizon at Fairchild Air Force Base, near Spokane, Washington, on May 18, 1980. (U.S. Air Force)

The sky began to darken and the ash fell like snow. Small, fine, gray particles that were just slightly gritty between your fingertips. The dark curtain of a cloud stretched across the sky, with a billowy underside. Streetlights switched on in the middle of the afternoon. Soon, you could hardly see those streetlights. The ash swirled and fell gently as the sky turned black and the world became still—no traffic sounds, no distant airplanes—just the dark silence of a midnight snowstorm, only it was happening on an afternoon in May.

The fear and anxiety that had built up earlier in the day washed away very quickly. We did not die. We got our first look at the eruption on the evening news, hours after we had been covered by the cloud. The next morning we woke up to see a landscape turned completely gray overnight. Several inches of ash coated everything, erasing all the color in the world. Schools and businesses closed for several days, making things even more surreal.

The streets of Yakima, Washington, are dark at 3:00 p.m. after an eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980.
Volcanic ash covers the streets of Yakima, Washington, as people wear masks to avoid breathing the particles, on May 18, 1980. (AP)

We found out later that the eruption had claimed 57 lives. It was preceded by the largest landslide ever recorded. It shortened the volcano by about 1,300 feet, generated a blast heard 200 miles away, and spent nine hours spewing 500 million tons of ash 15 miles into the sky, which then fell across at least 11 states and parts of Canada.

The ash itself was hardly dangerous, just mostly a nuisance; we bought so many dust masks and air filters that year. Rainfall eventually washed much of the ash away. Schools reopened for the last few days of the year, and things got back to normal pretty quick.

But for at least one day in May of 1980, thousands of us in the path of that dark cloud gathered together, unsure, amazed, worried, yet hopeful, as we watched the sky above us turn black in the middle of the day.

For years to come, though, you could still find piles of ash in places, stirred up by a footstep, or twisting lazily in a dust devil far across a wheat field.