First hand accounts of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption

First hand accounts of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption

Author’s Note: This part of a weekly series on geology for a class I am taking this semester at BYU-Idaho. This week’s prompt required students to interview somebody who had firsthand experience with a volcano. I interviewed my grandparents, who lived in Kennewick, Wash. when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. Other posts from this assignment can be found under the “Geology 111” category. 

Mount St. Helens famously erupted immediately after an earthquake caused the north side of the mountain to collapse on the morning of May 18, 1980. Skies were sunny across the entirety of the Pacific Northwest, including in my hometown of Kennewick, Washington. Unfortunately for my geologically curious mind, this eruption was about 14 years before I was born. My grandparents, however, were young parents living in Kennewick. These are their stories.

Stumps and blown down trees near Mount St. Helens in 1985. (Courtesy: My grandparents)

Grandma – Terry Bird

Mount St. Helens erupted on a Sunday. We were getting ready for and went to church. At church, they told us the mountain erupted and we had to go home. We went home, changed, and went to Richland to go to your great grandma’s house. As we were heading there, these black clouds started rolling in. I remember saying to you’re grandpa, “this is probably what the Second Coming is going to look like.”

We got to Richland around noon, but outside it was dark like night time. The ash started falling, and it covered a lot of stuff. Grandpa collected some in jars that great grandma had and I think he still has them. I remember hearing the news stories about Moses Lake getting it bad and people’s cars stalling and quitting because of the ash.

I don’t know about on Monday, but I know that when the ash was falling you weren’t supposed to go out. You could hear it like rain, there was a lot of ash that was falling. It was pretty thick on the cars. I don’t think ash continued to fall, I think it just fell that Sunday and then there was ash on the ground and on the cars.

My uncle, Scot, standing on a blown down log near Mount St. Helens in 1985. (Courtesy: My grandparents)

I know Moses Lake and other areas to the north got it bad. There were piles of ash. I know one time, we were driving past the Moses Lake area (I don’t remember how long after) and there was still ash on the side of the road. I think grandpa wore a mask when he went outside. The rivers near the mountain flooded, also.

Before the big eruption, scientists were talking about the upcoming eruption and getting people off the mountain. Harry Truman refused to leave and of course he died in it. They were predicting it would erupt, they just didn’t know when.

My grandma (right) and her children on a blown down log near Mount St. Helens in 1985. (Courtesy: My grandparents)

We went up there a few years after it erupted. The forest was gone and the trees were strewn all over like toothpicks. It was really weird to see the devastation of all the trees. We have a picture of Scot (my uncle) and Angela (my mom) on one of the tree trunks.

I don’t remember being too concerned about it leading up to the eruption because it was so far away. I don’t think scientists knew exactly how bad it was going to be.

I’m not really concerned about future eruptions. I don’t worry about that. I would never build a house on a hill because of all of the mudslides that happen, but I don’t worry about things like volcanoes, the dams on the Columbia River breaking, or Hanford.

I don’t know what would happen if Mount St. Helens erupted again. It wouldn’t blow the top off, because it’s already gone. Mount Rainier is active, though.

I do think it’s interesting – this area and all the different things that have happened, like the Ice Age floods that came through here. It’s also interesting to have the petrified forest near Vantage. I know the water from the Ice Age flood carried the big granite rocks that are spread across the Mid Columbia. I don’t think you have to worry over things that might happen.


Grandpa – Doug Bird

It was Sunday morning and we were getting ready for church. I remember looking outside and seeing the weirdest clouds moving in, I didn’t know it was ash. It was a real eerie looking thing. We knew, we had warnings of St. Helens, but for some reason that didn’t enter my mind. It got real dark and it was this strange cloud formation, but it was uniform. There were swirling cloud formations as far as the eye could see.

Satellite image taken by the GOES-3 satellite 13 minutes after the eruption began. Cities added. (Source: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons)

The weather was pretty typical, it was nice early summer weather. I didn’t really notice how clear it was because I looked out and saw all the cloud cover, but it was calm. That’s what made it so eerie is that it was so quiet.

At Church they announced what happened and sent everybody home. Once we got home we went to my folks’ house in Richland. By the time we got there the ash started falling, so there was a thin coat of ash on the cars. We were fortunate, Moses Lake got hit really hard. It got dark, but it didn’t get midnight dark as it did in Moses Lake. The ash was so heavy that it affected vehicles. As I remember, here in the Tri-Cities it didn’t affect work too much, but in Moses Lake it did because it was so dark. Vehicles filters were plugging up and they didn’t run. As I remember, I still went to work Monday.

Packwood got hit real hard. Some of the ash that fell there was heavier, like rocks and stuff instead of just ash. Of course, that stands to reason that the heavier stuff would fall instead of go into the atmosphere.

My dad used to go near Mount St. Helens to pick berries. Prior to the eruption happening, authorities had evacuated that area. Harry Truman lived on Spirit Lake and he refused to go. He had been there his whole life and was in his 80s. Of course, he perished, but I don’t know what the death count was. I found the mountain more interesting than worrying. They’ve told us all along that Rainier, St. Helens, and other Cascade volcanoes are all active. They’re not dormant. It was still kinda surprising, though. They evacuated people and had the signs, but you just don’t think that it will happen.

Blown down trees near Mount St. Helens in 1985. (Courtesy: My grandparents)

When I went up to fish in O’Sullivan and Moses Lake to fish there was a lot of ash on the ground even years after. We didn’t have that problem here. We went up to St. Helens four or five years after the eruption. You could notice a little bit of green poking up, but that landscape looked like a different world. The pictures don’t do it justice. They also had vehicles that were destroyed. There wasn’t a single tree standing, everything was burned and looked as if you were on the moon.

I’m not really concerned about other Cascade eruptions. I grew up here and knew of the volcanoes, but it doesn’t really bother me. Of course, it didn’t bother Harry Truman either.


About 15 minutes after getting off the phone with my grandpa, my grandma texted me telling me to turn on PBS. They were running a program named We’ll Meet Again. I’m thankful to my grandparents for being willing to talk to me about the eruption, not only today but ever since I started taking an interested in geology and the Cascade volcanoes.

These interviews were conducted via telephone on January 30, 2018. The text has been edited to correct grammatical errors.

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