The 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington State, is upon us. Known as the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history, the May 18, 1980, eruption killed 57 people and destroyed 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway. A massive debris avalanche, triggered by an earthquake of magnitude 5.1, caused a lateral eruption that reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 feet to 8,363 feet, leaving a 1-mile wide horseshoe-shaped crater, according to Wikipedia.
In the July 1980 issue of the Brethren Missionary Herald magazine, Charles Winter, then pastor at the Grace Brethren Church in Harrah, Wash., some 80 miles away as the crow flies, recalled watching the explosion. His story is included below, along with some more recent memories.
From July 1980, Brethren Missionary Herald:
The following is a firsthand “Mount St. Helens” report from Charles Winter, pastor of the Harrah Brethren Church, Harrah, Washington:
It looked like a huge black thundercloud spreading across the western horizon of the Yakima Valley. Folks were already beginning to arrive for Sunday school on May 18 when my wife looked out and said that was not a cloud… “that’s from Mount St. Helens.”
As our people arrived, they stopped on the church steps to watch the rapidly approaching blackness and to listen to the rumble of thunder.
A telephone call a few minutes later confirmed the fact that that cloud was a huge, tumbling mass of volcanic ash and dust from Mount St. Helens. The grumbling, steam-spewing mountain west of us had finally “blown her top.” In less than a minute she had dropped from being the fifth highest peak in the state, to the thirtieth, as 1,000 feet of rock and dirt and glacier material blasted skyward.
Harrah Brethren Church member Lyle Taylor, scoutmaster of our local troop, had his boys on a camp-out on the North Fork of the Ahtanum. Hurriedly breaking camp and driving back towards Yakima he said “five miles per hour was too fast” in the thick, choking dust.
The fine ash that first fell soon gave way to a gritty, sand-like dust that covered everything. Churchgoers entered the sanctuary with clothing sprinkled with grey dust and ash.
Within minutes an eclipse-like darkness engulfed our valley. Lights in farm yards and city streets came on, birds went to roost and a chorus of frog voices from the irrigation ditches vied with the noise of thunder and lightning spawned by the volcanic eruption.
In the beam of headlights the volcano dust could be seen falling straight down like some strange hail.
Dick and Bonnie Schilperoort were with us and were planning to leave that evening on the first leg of the journey that would take them to the Chateau ministry in France. But all transportation in and out of the valley ground to a halt and it wasn’t until several days later that they were able to make connections to get on a bus headed east.
The Sunday morning sermon was entitled “A Nation in Need of Prayer” and seemed quite appropriate.
Wheelbarrow loads of dust were scraped from the flat church roof and were used to fill in some low spots in the gravel road near the church. The parsonage roof was washed off and the muddy mixture all but buried flowers and other plants.
What the long-term effects of the dust will be in our valley is the subject of much discussion. Fruit trees and field crops were all pelted by the dust and even sharp streams of pressured water had difficulty dislodging the clinging ash.
Whether Mount St. Helens will quiet down or just simmer or repeat the May 18 performance, is anybody’s guess. But what has happened will affect our lives for long months to come.
Proverbs 18:10 has taken on a new meaning to believers in the Yakima Valley: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe.”
Charles Winter, reminiscing 40 years later:
“Two years after Mount St Helens erupted, my wife, Marilyn, and I drove up the winding road into the eruption zone. Ash blew up from the roadway as we passed by. The once lush forested areas were now blackened, ugly carpets, with the stark skeletons of blackened tree trunks here and there. As we approached what was now the observation area, we were greeted by perhaps a dozen cars with sightseers, such as ourselves.
“Marilyn was understandably reticent to take any of the walking trails that had been opened. But we did venture out far enough to see mountains flowers already blooming in their beds of black. Small trees were appearing, but what was almost more amazing was to watch a small herd of elk coming down a hillside. The Ranger told us that even seasoned geologists and botanists were shocked to see how quickly the landscape, flora, and fauna, were returning. Spirit Lake was ever so slowly returning to its former state, to what it was before that wall of superheated gases and ash came rumbling through.
“This footnote: Back in the 30s, my father had been part of a Civilian Conservation Crew (CCC) crew that had done extensive wall and bridge-building near Mount St. Helens. When he learned that we had accepted the call to pastor at Harrah, he told us to be sure and drive up to Mt St Helens because that area was so lovely.
“Indeed, Mount St. Helens used to be called the “Mt Fuji of the Northwest,” due to their similar shapes and beauty. But, alas, we never did so until after the disaster. We would always regret that.”
Chuck notes that the straight line distance, Harrah to Mt St. Helens, is 80 plus miles. “That’s one reason the ash fall was so heavy. As today, face masks were “ in style.” State Troopers ran dryer flex pipes from the car carburetor to the backseat of their patrol cars for cleaner air.
“Harrah farmer Weston Ferguson had lab tests done on the ash and figured he received close to forty dollars worth of trace minerals per acre,” he also added, “Hiking in the Cascades several years ago we found ash visible in the cracks in tree stumps.”