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The day the earth turned gray

Where were you when the mountain blew? Read a Mount St. Helens reminiscence from Science Editor Alan Boyle.
Wearing a face mask to keep his airways clear, Alan Boyle takes a break from sweeping the volcanic ash off his doorstep on May 19, 1980.
Wearing a face mask to keep his airways clear, Alan Boyle takes a break from sweeping the volcanic ash off his doorstep on May 19, 1980.

A vast cloud turned the skies pitch-black at midday, and then the rain of choking dirt began. On May 18, 1980, the eruption of Mount St. Helens looked like the end of the world. Now it’s an occasion to drag out the old pictures, check the mayonnaise jar filled with souvenir ash — and ask: “Where were you when the mountain blew?”

Even 200 miles east of Mount St. Helens, the reawakening volcano was a big story for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., where I was working as an assistant city editor. We printed daily stories about the mountain’s rumblings beginning with the first burps that March. But although the volcano was clearly a potential peril for its immediate surroundings, I didn’t think it would affect Spokane.

That all changed on “Ash Sunday.” The first sign was a solid dark cloud front, visible on the western edge of a sunny sky as I was backing my car out of the driveway. That’s what finally prompted me to turn on the radio and find out about the 8:32 a.m. eruption.

Cloud grows, crowd dwindles
I was due to attend a midday party for a colleague and his fiancée — and despite the cloud of volcanic ash that was floating east from the volcano, I decided to go ahead with my plans. In fact, much of the newspaper’s staff showed up at the party. Gradually, however, the cloud grew in the western sky, and the crowd dwindled. Reporters and editors were called back to the newsroom. When half of the sky was blackened, it was my turn.

The cloud mushroomed quickly: By the time I headed to the office, street lights were switching themselves on and the ash was starting to fall like talcum powder from the heavens. I drove slowly through empty streets, headlights shining through the gray haze and windshield wipers pushing the ash away.

I parked in a covered garage downtown, and walked just a block or two to the Review Building. In that short time, anything that was exposed — my hair and face, jacket and jeans — became covered with grime, as if I had been rubbed in an ashtray. Just a few minutes of breathing in the grit made my voice croaky. My arrival in the newsroom was definitely good for a laugh.

Through the night, we put together pages of stories about the eruption, about its effects, about how to cope. As I walked home, I wondered just a bit whether the sun would shine in the morning — it did, although the light was filtered through an ashen fog. I also wondered whether the newspaper we slaved over would show up on my doorstep — it didn’t, at least not until the following day.

Gray Monday
That Monday morning was a study in gray: Only about a half-inch of fine pumice coated Spokane, but every vehicle that rolled down the street stirred up clouds in its wake. I scooped up a dustpan’s worth of pristine sidewalk ash and dropped it into the mayonnaise jar.

For the next couple of days, I left my car in the downtown garage and trudged back and forth to work, out of concern about the dust’s effect on the engine. There were great debates over whether to hose down the ash that covered lawns and rooftops. I took the laissez-faire approach, siding with those who feared water would turn the ash to a layer of crusty mud.

But these matters paled in comparison with the tragedy that unfolded in the blast zone, where 57 people lost their lives. The closest I ever came to all that was when I was sent to retrieve a snapshot of one of the missing from his house in Spokane, for publication in the newspaper. A sad grayness hung over the house, and the man’s widow. The couple had been married for just a few months.

As the weeks unwound, the newspaper moved on to other headlines: the presidential election and the Iran hostage drama, the city’s centennial celebration and the notorious case of the South Hill Rapist.

I eventually moved on as well, bringing that jar of ash with me like a relative’s funerary urn. Every couple of years or so, I unscrew the lid and poke my nose inside the jar. Even a gentle shake can raise a wisp of dust that catches in the throat like an old, gray memory.

This is a revised version of a report that first appeared in 2000.