Witnesses remember Mount St. Helens eruption 41 years later

SPOKANE, Wash. — The images of Mount St. Helens erupting into the sky invokes powerful memories for many Washington residents.  41 years ago the volcano finally went, spewing ash as far as the eastern United States.  It was the most powerful event the volcano saw in about 3,600 years.  Scientists say it is still young and the most active of all the volcanos in the Cascade’s.

“We intended to get a helicopter to move over Mount St. Helens the next morning so we could work on the shoe string glacier,” said Carolyn Driedger with the USGS.

She and a colleague were at the mountain on May 17, 1980 to research the impact the warming volcano had on glaciers.  However the next morning the mountain erupted before they could get there.

“We were around La Center, we looked up and saw this mighty black cloud forming on the top and the north side of the volcano and we thought that doesn’t look normal. We’ve both seen small eruptions and realized this was something different,” said Driedger.

After a 9-hour eruption the results were devastating. 57 people were killed, 250 homes wiped out, along with 47 bridges, 15 miles of railway and 185 miles of highway.

On the east side of the state, ash blanketed the ground for days, making visibility almost impossible.

“They were advising people not to drive because it would get sucked into your intake manifold and it could destroy your engine and it just literally shut down the streets and they would have to plow it, but it was so fine that it would just kick up more dust,” said Donald Jackson a Spokane resident.

The eruption took out a massive chunk of the mountain, and along with it about 1,300 feet from its summit.  However, the mountain is slowly returning to its former self.

“We have about 7% of the original volcano rebuilt, but that means we have about 93% to go yet, but still in the eruption of 2004-2008 the top of the lava dome came within just a few hundred feet or so of the crater rime before it crumbled down again,” said Driedger.

While devastating, this eruption did have some benefits.  Washington State University professor David Gaylord described the event as part of a natural recycling process.  The Palouse’s deep topsoil’s are volcanic in their origins.