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Blast from the past

Blast from the past

Missoulians recall eruption of Mount St. Helens 20 years later

Twenty years later, Jim Carlson's most enduring image of the ashfall that followed the eruption of Mount St. Helens is of a young man riding his bicycle down Orange Street in Missoula, wearing a scuba mask and breathing apparatus.

Carlson had been up almost all night, huddled in the basement of the Missoula County Courthouse with health and Civil Defense officers - "reluctant kings," he said, shutting down the pulp mill in Frenchtown, sawmills in Missoula and Bonner, schools, the airport, bars, beauty shops and everything else considered "nonessential."

Not long before dawn, Carlson went home to sleep for an hour or two. He woke to a scene like something out of a science fiction movie. The one where wayward travelers come across an abandoned city, silent and gray.

On the way back to the office, Carlson saw the lone bicyclist, scuba tanks on his back, pedaling through town.

"You could see where every bird or bug had hopped in the dust," said Carlson, who on May 18, 1980, ran Missoula's air-pollution control program. Today, he is environmental health director at the City-County Health Department.

Nine hours after Mount St. Helens eruptedin Washington state, ash began to fall in western Montana. No one expected it. No one had planned for it. No one knew what to do.

"Pretty much everybody was surprised," said University of Montana geologist Johnnie Moore, who just two weeks earlier had been camped on the mountain's northern flank, measuring the earthquakes that were precursors to the volcanic eruption.

"We knew there was going to be a big eruption," Moore said Wednesday, "but no one thought there would be a giant eruption. And we were totally surprised by the extent of the ashfall."

There was, however, plenty of evidence in the geologic record of past eruptions in the Cascades. Geologists knew there were at least three layers of volcanic ash in western Montana sediments: from the eruption of Mount Mazama, which formed Crater Lake; and twice from Glacier Peak, north of Crater Lake.

"But even geologists forget about geologic time," Moore said.

Moore was driving home from Flathead Lake when the ashfall began late that Sunday afternoon. "It just started getting dark," he said. "We had no idea what was happening. I had just gotten back from Mount St. Helens, but it still didn't click. It just seemed unbelievable to me that it actually had exploded. Holy moly, it was pretty astonishing."

By the time he got home, he had a stack of telephone messages from health officers, news reporters and co-workers. Carlson got the first callback.

"What's in this ash?" came the question. "Is it dangerous to breathe? What happens when it comes in contact with water? Is it corrosive? Poisonous? Radioactive?"

Before Moore could finish his analysis, pollution monitors on the roof of the Health Department recorded 19,228 micrograms of particulate - gritty gray ash - per cubic meter of air.

"We've never seen a number like that before," said Scott Church, then an air-quality specialist at the county. "I can't believe it." (In 1980, Missoula called an air-pollution crisis when the pollution count hit 625 micrograms per cubic meter.)

Every time the wind kicked up from the west or south, more ash landed in the valley. Every time a car or train or airplane rolled across asphalt, a dust storm ensued. When a national news crew convinced an airline pilot to land without permission at Johnson-Bell Field, the county's Civil Defense director bellowed: "Tell them to shut down until they get that damn runway clear."

"We stopped a freight train earlier in the day," said James Fleharty, another Civil Defense officer. "So I guess we can stop jet airplanes."

Eventually, the ash was deemed extremely abrasive and largely insoluble, but not poisonous. Its fine-grained nature made it a danger - but not deadly - to lungs, contact lenses, car windshields, engines and paint jobs.

"For material to move 450 miles (from western Washington to western Montana), it has to be fairly fine-grained," Carlson said. "We only had about three-eighths of an inch on the ground, but it was so fine, it really messed with the air."

Thus the list of don'ts issued by Carlson, and ultimately by Montana Gov. Tom Judge: Don't leave your house. Don't leave your dogs and cats outdoors. Don't drive your car, and if you must, keep your speed to no more than 15 mph. Don't go outside unless your mouth and nose are covered. Don't turn on your air conditioner or heater.

Outside of government, most western Montanans seemed to enjoy themselves during the five days of shutdowns that followed the eruption and ash cloud.

Howard Miller, an auto mechanic, set up shop at Missoula's Malfunction Junction selling surgical masks to motorists at 50 cents apiece. Downtown, two other street-corner vendors sold the same, albeit for 75 cents. At the University of Montana, Sigma Chi fraternity threw an ash party.

And at KGVO radio, newscaster Tom Ash took to the air to defend his honor. "It's my real name, I swear," he said. "If I was going to change my name, I'd change it to Paul Newman or something like that. I'd get more action."

Nine months later, maternity wards throughout the western half of the state reported a Mount St. Helens baby boom, which at least one hospital administrator attributed to all those days that couples spent at home, on notice not to leave the premises.

Even Missoula County's most notorious eruption-week scofflaw remembers the ashfall with a smile, 20 years after the fact.

Don Larson, then owner of The Filling Station in Seeley Lake, was the only person arrested because of the episode. Health officers ruled his business a tavern, not a restaurant, and told Larson to shut the doors. He refused, and four deputies showed up at his home and escorted him to the county jail.

He spent the night with the only other prisoner, a man accused of murdering a man under the Orange Street Bridge. Larson didn't let on why he was in the jail, and made sure the other fellow saw the nasty wound on his face - from a chain saw accident earlier in the day.

"I was fuming mad," Larson remembered Wednesday. "When they let me out the next day, I went upstairs where the governor was having a meeting and raised a little hell. It's a fun memory."

"We all got to experience an incredible geologic phenomenon," said geologist Moore. "For me, that was pretty exciting - to be reminded of the power of these natural systems and of our powerlessness against them."

Mount St. Helens on the Web

€ 20th anniversary events: vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/News/MSH20

€ Tourist information: www.mountsthelens.com

€ U.S. Geological Survey: vulcan.wr.usgs.gov

€ The "VolcanoCam," courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service: www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm/volcanocam

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