It was May 18, 1980, and I received a phone call from my husband, Cecil, a merchant mariner captain who had been at sea for about four months and was returning to his home port in Seattle. He liked me to meet his ship at the dock whenever he returned, and we’d celebrate his homecoming with a mini-vacation.
He advised that he would arrive in Seattle in three days, and suggested I drive up. I told him about the eruption of Mount St. Helens, of which he was aware – but he’d never seen an eruption like this and didn’t realize the magnitude of the event.
Me: “I won’t be able to drive up, honey, because the Toutle River bridge washed out and the freeway is closed.”
Hubby: “That’s OK, just fly up and we’ll spend a couple of days around Seattle and fly home.”
Me: “All flights between Portland and Seattle have been canceled because of the amount of ash in the air, and the danger of engines clogging.”
Hubby (notable agitation evident now): “Why don’t you take the train?”
Me: “Uh, the trains aren’t running either because of possible damage to the tracks by ash and debris.”
Me: “Let’s wait a day or two, I’ll stay on top of the situation and we’ll talk again.”
During the next couple of days, the highway department and all agencies involved were urgently working to inspect and open the freeway again. In the meantime, my son-in-law said, “If he wants you in Seattle, we’ll get you there.”
He prepared the car however he could, putting protection over the grill and several gallons of water in the trunk in case the radiator needed flushing. He also purchased face masks for each of us.
By the third day the freeway was partially open. After talking again with Cecil, we set out in the morning on an unbelievable experience.
The ash was so thick and swirling in the air, it was like driving through dense fog. It seeped in around the windows, so we wore masks inside the car to aid our breathing. The landscape was eerie, silent and ugly. Everywhere and everything was gray. The trees were no longer green but covered in gray ash. So was the highway we were traveling. We could not see our hood or taillights of anyone who might be ahead of us. I remember fearing that we could crash at any moment because we were just feeling our way along without seeing where we were or anyone nearby.
We finally came upon three semitruck rigs moving slowly along, taking all three lanes, controlling the traffic speed and the swirling ash. They drove at 10 mph nearly the entire distance to Tacoma and beyond. If not for those good Samaritans, this monumental event could have been even more disastrous.
Passing over the Toutle River was a heartbreaking sight: There was no longer a river there. It had been completely obliterated by a log-jam of trees, stripped of their leaves and piled against the bottom of the bridge. Nothing familiar remained, only chaos and an ashen moonscape.
It was a harrowing drive for my son-in-law with plenty of nail-biting and backseat advice from my daughter and me. The trip of nearly eight hours might normally have taken three.
We arrived at the dock in time to meet Cecil, who was shocked to see the car covered in ash. We stayed overnight in a hotel and started back to Vancouver the following day with my husband at the wheel. He was astounded at the conditions and devastation along the way and humbled at what we had been through to get to him. He said if he had realized what a dangerous trip it was, he would have never expected me to be there.
But I was just as anxious to see him!
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