The Day My World Shook
A true story
“Aw Dad, do I have to go to church?” I whined from under my covers. The waterbed was warm and although I enjoyed seeing my
friends at church, it wasn’t compelling enough to make me want
to get up.
“Yes.” Was all he said, and it was enough. My father was a very fair man and did not rule me with fear, but respect. One of the worst things I
could do was let my Dad down; so I did what he said. Dragging myself out of bed that morning, I had no idea that it was a day I would never
Church started at nine and as was the norm, my sister and I scrambled at the last minute to leave on time. Dad was usually out in the car,
impatiently tapping the steering wheel as my Mom orchestrated the 'last-minute-hustle' dance with us. It was quite a show.
Our most recent animal acquisition were two rabbits named Snowball and Tiger. Contrary to their names, several weeks later Snowball was found eating
Tiger…but that’s a different story. This particular morning I rushed out back to check on them before the final honk from the station wagon.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the dark clouds on the horizon. Now Yakima, Washington can have some spectacular thunder storms and we
lived near the base of low hills that were often struck by random bolts, but these were like nothing I had ever seen. Of course, I was only nine
years old so my history wasn’t long but I knew I was looking at something unusual. They were still a long way off, huge black inkwells spreading
out on the horizon.
I skipped around to the front yard eager to tell my Dad. He was in his ‘time to go’ mode though and wasn’t that interested in my ramblings.
Sitting in the most unladylike way I could muster in the back seat (I was a complete tom-boy but my parents made me wear a skirt to church), I
insisted that my father listen to me.
As we made our way out of the cul-de-sac and turned onto a main street, my father finally saw what had gotten me all worked up. He paused. It was
still far away, but even to his 35 years it was a perplexing sight. “You’re right Tara that is quite a storm.” I sat back in my seat,
satisfied to finally be acknowledged.
I have to admit that I was a bit excited too. I just loved a good thunder storm. My Dad and I would often go out in the back yard with his camera
on a tripod and try to catch those random bolts hitting the hillside. I would stay out for as long as I could stand my Mom telling me to come in
before I got killed.
That was what I was thinking about as we went into church that day. The great pictures we just might get and how I was going to keep my Mom off my
back long enough to get them. This turned out to be one of those days though that my Mom just happened to be right. You see, it was May 18, 1980 and
that was not a fantastic thunderstorm brewing in the distance. It was the most devastating eruption the United States has ever recorded.
After church we made our way to a local park for a pot-luck picnic with some friends from church. This was a common occurrence on Sundays and I
normally enjoyed it. Today though, I was eager to get back home ahead of the storm. I was disappointed to not be able to see it when we first came
out of the church. We were down-town then and did not have the great view to the West that we got from our backyard.
The park though was near our house and nestled along a small river that wound through our valley, hugging the hillside with the darkened spots from
lightening hits. These low hills did not have trees on them, but scrub so the view was unobstructed. As we were unloading our food from the various
cars and making our way out to the open picnic area, I scanned the sky and even though I had already seen it, gasped at the tapestry laid out before
Those dark imposing clouds were no longer ink wells but large ominous black seas. They swelled higher than any cloud should and continued to spread
out as if it were a black hole swallowing the sky. The air around me had taken on a heaviness that seemed to push against me. The hair not only on
the back of my neck stood up but also my arms and legs. Sheer instinct told me that this was something I should be running from and my excitement was
quickly replaced with the cold fist of fear punching me hard in the stomach.
The potato salad in my hands forgotten, I spun around to look for my Dad. He was running towards our small group from the parking lot, a look on his
face that I had never before seen. The fear clawed its way up into the back of my throat.
“That’s not a storm!” He was yelling to the three other families, all of them now seeing the building mass for the first time. His voice
seemed to come from far away as my fight or flight instincts took over. “Mount Saint Helen’s has erupted! We all have to get home,” he
No one knew what that meant. “Helen’s erupted? What do you mean, erupted?” several people said at once. My gut knew though
what my mind did not. Some seventy people were killed that morning as massive lahars (water and mud flows) rushed down the mountain. The pyroclastic
flow leveled over 380 square kilometers of 200 year old trees as it blew over 900 meters off its top.
We were looking at a cubic mile of material rising into the sky, more than a metric ton for every person on earth that day. We were
witnessing history in the making, but all I knew was that I was more scared than I ever been in my short life.
Once we were back safe at home, it was almost noon and the evil looking clouds were rapidly sweeping towards us, threatening to crash down at any
minute. No one knew what to do. All the radio stations were saying was to stay inside and don’t breath the ash. We didn’t even know what ash
was let-alone what to do with it. My primary concern was for the rabbits.
Now I was a child that refused to cry when I broke a bone. To shed tears was to show weakness and I prided myself in being strong. But that day, as
I stood outside looking at the rabbits in the hutch, I sobbed. My excuse was of course concern for the rabbits but I can admit now that I was just
scared. I thought we all might die. The worst part was that no one could really assure me that we wouldn’t.
As I stood there, the shadow of what was left of the mountain overtook me, a complete blackness that was Mother Nature assuring me of her power. As
the first light flakes began to fall, the surreal landscape turned into a scene from my nightmares of hell.
Back inside where we hoped it was safe, my neighbors started to congregate. I already mentioned we lived in a cul-de-sac, and we were all young
families that for the most part got along well. For whatever reason, most of them ended up at my house, bringing food for what was the second attempt
at a pot-luck for the day.
We all gathered in the living room to watch the news, hoping for some thread of information to reassure us that the world was not ending. The one
image that stands out most in my mind is the split screen. There happened to be a big baseball game that day and apparently our demise by volcano
didn’t warrant a full interruption of the broadcast.
It appeared that while there was still mass confusion as to what had really happened up on the mountain that day; they were at least able to tell us
that we were going to have ash fall us. Newsflash! That was already happening, thank you very much. What they couldn’t tell us was how much, how
long and how dangerous it was. We were left with our own imaginations. For a nine year old girl who spent a good portion of her time thinking up
various stories and fantasies, this was just not a good thing.
After some food and a small dose of the news/baseball game, the several kids that were there ended up in my room, drawn along into my interpretation
By now we were completely engulfed in darkness, the ground and everything else outside covered in a fine layer of growing ash. The rumbling had
begun. A distant sound not unlike thunder that resonated through the house and your body. Lightning flashed regularly, as if to mock me and my
earlier excitement now turned to dread.
We huddled under multiple blankets and sleeping bags on the floor of my room, several children of various ages sharing an experience that for that
night, made us all great friends. Every time the lightning flashed or the rumbling grew, we would pull the covers tighter around us, drawing on each
other’s presence and strength. I grew up a bit that night. I learned that the world was not as predictable or safe as I had once thought. I also
realized that fear will completely take you over if you let it and if you can master this emotion than you can handle whatever life throws at
you…even a mountain.
Thank you to those that took the time to read my story! As indicated in the sub-title, this is a true story. I obviously survived the night that Mt.
St. Helen's errupted. I chose to write about this experience because it is the main event in my childhood that has fueled my interest in Geology as
an adult. It was this desire to learn more that drew me to ATS and ultimately the fragile earth forum, where you will find me the most. This earth
we share is incredible and so much more powerful than most people can even comprehend.
Following are a couple of links of interest for the erruption and a couple of pictures I have taken of two other volcanos I now live near; Mount Baker
and Mount Rainier. Enjoy!
Helen's resource site
Mount Baker, as seen a few miles from my house:
Mount Rainier as seen near Packwood, WA; (also the most dangerous volcano in the US)