The day the sky rained ash
A Missoula man puts the exclamation point in the thin layer of ash on his car windshield on the morning after Mount St. Helens erupted, May 18, 1980, spreading ash across a wide area northeast of the volcano.
By CARL DAVAZ/Missoulian

Sunday afternoon, May 18, 1980.

Jim Carlson, who ran Missoula's air-pollution control program, was working in his yard.

Rick Newlon had just awakened after working the night shift as a Missoula County sheriff's deputy.

Cyndie Winchell was driving the "booze cart" at a tournament at the Highlands Golf Course.

Chris Niswanger was hanging out at a friend's house, lazing away a fine afternoon.

Slowly, on the western horizon, a darkness gathered. To Niswanger and Winchell, the coming gloom looked apocalyptic.

"I thought it was the end of the world," said Winchell, who works enforcement for the Missoula Parking Commission.

"I thought maybe the big one had gone off," said Niswanger, who works at Worden's.

Glancing up from his yard work, Carlson saw an ominous sky over Lolo Peak to the south.

"We're going to get some serious rain, so we better wrap this up," Carlson recalls saying.

A short time later, Carlson got a call from the National Weather Service. It wasn't rain, as it turned out. It was ash, from a Washington volcano Carlson had never had much occasion to pay attention to - Mount St. Helens. "You're going to be a very busy person," the meteorologist told Carlson.

He went straight to work.

"Basically, we were holed up in the basement for days trying to get everything under control," said Carlson, who is now environmental health director for the Missoula City-County Health Department. "All of a sudden we were in charge of the whole county. Frankly, it wasn't much fun."

While Carlson and his colleagues called the shots from the basement of the Missoula County Courthouse, Newlon and other law officers patrolled the eerie streets of a town that was all but shut down.

Newlon had thought it was nothing but a story, but a television news report set him straight - a volcano in southwestern Washington had erupted earlier in the day.

The volcano killed 57 people that day and obliterated nearly 230 square miles of forest. The eruption lasted nearly nine hours and affected the lives of thousands in the Pacific Northwest.

Missoulians were some of those people. The town came to a grinding halt, covered in a layer of fine gray ash. Montana's governor, Tom Judge, issued a list of prohibited activities, which including just about everything but making babies; nine months later, maternity wards in western Montana reported a baby boomlet.

Don't leave home. Don't go to work. Don't go outside without covering your face. Don't drive, but if you must, don't go over 15 mph.

Newlon said people mostly complied, and that over the course of the week, night shift became a bizarre job in a surreal setting.

"We were chasing each other around for something to do," he remembered. "You couldn't see past the hood of your car. Turning on your top lights was pretty cool, with all the colors bouncing off the dust."

If someone did commit a crime, he was pretty easy to find.

"We did have some people siphoning gas and such, but we never had it so good in finding people," Newlon said. "You could just follow their trail. It got to where you could tell the difference between a bicycle, a motorcycle and a car, just by the way they stirred up the ash."

Niswanger and Winchell were young adults in 1980, and they were disinclined to follow the recommendations of government bureaucrats.

"I remember we didn't stay home," Niswanger said. "We were pretty busy coming down to Worden's to buy beer. It was just entirely surreal when you went out. Like all the color had been washed out of things."

Winchell, who was a bartender at Harry O's in the old Park Hotel in those days, took the opportunity to spend some time with her roommate.

"We went and got sandwiches from Hoagieville, put on our bikinis and laid out in the yard with scarves across our faces," she said. "Friends came by and said we'd gone insane, because we told them we were getting a tan. Only when you went inside and took a shower, the tan just washed right off."

Newlon said he'd come home from his night shift in a brown uniform dusted nearly white. He'd strip down outside, then throw his uniform in the washer, which was nearly trashed from cleaning the ash away.

That same sort of material damage was being done daily to the department's cruisers; they were changing air filters almost every night, Newlon said.

"I remember we had to take them out to some truck stop because Skip's (the county's regular garage) was shut down," he said.

While most of Missoula shut down, Carlson and his colleagues labored to figure out how to deal with the ash, whether it was harmful and when it might be safe to let people resume their normal lives again.

Eventually, the ash was determined to be extremely abrasive and mostly insoluble, but at least it wasn't poisonous. Newlon said it left the taste of burnt sulfur in his mouth, and Carlson said law enforcement officers were some of the people later tested and found to have short-term impacts on their pulmonary systems.

"When you looked at that stuff under a microscope, it looked like shattered glass," Carlson said. "There's no way that's good for you."

The ash wasn't good for you, to be sure, but it was a novelty, and collecting it was a way to preserve time in a bottle.

When Tim France and his wife, Exie, bought Worden's 10 months later, they inherited a gallon jar that once held Mexican salsa. On the label, someone had written "Mt. St. Helen" twice on either side of the Picante label.

About 3 inches of ash are in the jar, which sits on a desk under the office stairs at the deli.

"Look at that stuff," Niswanger said Tuesday. "It looks just like cement. Man, that was a long time ago."

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