While we journalists have been mostly thinking about covering the novel coronavirus and all of its implications, we are also thinking about how to cover the 40th anniversary of the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens.
The volcano, which is located in Skamania County, erupted on Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, on a clear day that in Eastern Washington quickly turned dark. I remember that day well. I was a student at Washington State University in Pullman, and I was procrastinating over an English paper when word got around campus that an ash cloud was coming, and that the observation deck atop the tallest building on campus was being opened so students could see it.
I put aside my portable typewriter and hurried to the observation deck. Instead of a single cloud, I remember seeing a straight dark line on the horizon. As it moved closer, it was easy to see where the sky turned from clear blue to jet black. About the time the line reached Dusty, the campus police closed the roof, and we were ordered to go home and stay there. Soon it got dark, the streetlights came on, and it began to “snow” flakes of ash that would never melt.
I still own the typewriter, but I don’t think I ever finished that English paper. After a week of shelter-in-place rules, administrators made the rest of the school year optional. Because my parents’ home was unscathed, I left town until the fall.
It is a trivial story considering the eruption killed 57 people and damaged more than 200 homes. It took months — or years — for areas a long way from the volcano to recover, and, of course, the blast zone itself is still recovering.