The night before the eruption at Central Washington University, we bought a keg of beer for the next morning’s “Hardcore Party.” This is when all or most of the students in the dorm come to a room at 7 a.m. dressed in nightgowns, PJ’s, robes, whatever and have a few drinks on a Sunday morning. This was held on that day, Sunday May 18th, in my room with about 25 people attending.
After the activities, a buddy of mine, Brian, and I went for a walk across campus heading west toward the science building. Ellensburg, where the university is located, is reknown for is windy days. But on this day, there was none. Brian noticed this, and also mentioned that there were no noises from any birds. Then he went into a glazed stare to the west. I thought the beer had gotten the best of him. When I turned to looked at what he was focused on, I, too, was in shock!
The Cascade Range is just to the west of the campus, and all we could see coming over the crest of the mountain range was black, billowing clouds. It started in a spot and was ever increasingly getting wider and larger as the seconds passed. In minutes, the entire mountain range was covered. At first, we thought it was a forest fire, but it increased too quickly for that, and we decided to head back to the dorm across campus. While walking back, students were yelling out their dorm windows that “Mount St. Helens has just erupted!”
When we returned to the dorm, the ash started falling and didn’t stop for days. We had 2 feet of ash by noon. It was dark as night, and all the street lights were on. We were all out taking pictures, and some students were collecting samples. We had picture of us shaking trees and having the ash come down like thick snow on us.
Later the night, we watched the CBS News with Dan Rather as he explained the the ash was really tiny particles of glass and breathing it was hazardous. Great! We had been playing in it all day, now we started wearing masks or anything close to a mask to save our lungs.
The university closed down all classes and activities except for the food and dining halls but they were no good. The ash on the students clothes would become dust as they brushed it off after entering the dining hall. This caused a cloud in the entire room and a thin layer of ash was every where from on top of the soup to all of the rest of the food.
That night, all the food stores such as Safeway were emptied of all alcohol since school was closed. Two friends of mine in the dorm were crying all night because the phones (no cell phone in those days) were jammed and could not reach home where they lived in the Castle Rock area, which was hard hit from the flooding and reports of high deaths were in that area.
This went on for two more days until the university declared that school was closed for the remainer of the spring session and that you could stay and take your final examinations for your courses in a few weeks when the clean-up was over, or you could take your current grades and go home when possible.
I took my grades and took off back to Vancouver as soon as I heard the official news.
What a wild three days in college!