40 years ago, an Oregon mountain blew its top

by Steve Lyon
It’s hard to believe that this month
marks the 40th anniversary of the
Mount St. Helen’s eruption.
It seems preposterous that 40 years
have flown by since the
mountain blew up, an
event I can recall with
clarity, at least for selected
We were in Moscow
at the time picking up
my older brother as he
wrapped up another year
at the University of Idaho.
He loved science and
was pursuing a tough major
in zoology. My attention
drifted with a short
lecture he gave me on the
curriculum of organic versus
inorganic chemistry classes.
On May 18, at 8:32 a.m. Pacific
Time, a mountain we had never heard
of hundreds of miles to the west erupted
with an unbelievable fury. The ash
plume reached 80,000 feet in less than
15 minutes.
There was great tragedy in the disaster,
with 57 people on or near the
mountain killed in the blast or associated
collateral damage like landslides.
The eruption spewed 1.4 billion
cubic yards of ash into the air. The
ash moved east with the
prevailing winds and began
falling as light, gray
snow in Moscow just four
hours later.
It was one of the eeriest
moments I have ever
experienced. Not frightening,
just eerie as the
falling ash darkened the
sky. Streetlights came on
at 1 p.m. that afternoon
and birds returned to their
roosts in trees, confused
and thinking the night had
returned already.
We tuned in KUOI, the student-run
radio station at the University of Idaho,
for details on what was happening
in Moscow and the region.
I specifically recall a guest on one of
the news show who was an academic
of some sort, maybe a vulcanologist
at the university, and his prophetic
thoughts on the eruption, which thankfully
never came true.
He said the ash plume or cloud
could potentially block out the sun
for 20 years and plunge the earth into
another ice age. His comments were
equally bleak and fascinating.
We didn’t know if or when we could
leave Moscow for Idaho Falls. An
inch of ash collected on cars, streets,
anything outside. It was advised not to
drive it it. The abrasive ash could ruin
an engine or do other damage.
We did leave Moscow the next day,
or maybe it was the day after. We loaded
up all my brother’s stuff in the station
My dad collected a jar of ash for a
souvenir before we left Moscow. I’m
pretty sure he still has it somewhere,
probably in one of the boxes stacked
in his garage in Florida.
I need to ask him and my mom what
details they recall from the eruption
of Mount St. Helen’s. Even after 40
years, both would remember that day.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Steve Lyon is the editor of the Weiser
Signal American. Contact him at


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