Memories of Mount St. Helens 25 years later

On a tranquil Sunday in May 1980, the morning stillness was shattered by the quaking of one of the most famous volcanic eruptions of all time.

Mount St. Helens blew its top at 8:32 a.m., seconds after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake rocked the mountain. The plume of ash and debris that rose from the gaping crater quickly shifted across the state.

At WSU, faculty, staff and students braced as the cloud fell on the Palouse. Nearly 25 years later, WSU employees still readily recall the event.

Jacqueline Knight, an operations center supervisor for the Department of Facilities Operations, was at her parent’s house in Palouse when the ash descended.

“We just saw a big, black cloud coming,” Knight said. 

Unsure of work the following day, Knight decided to venture back to Pullman despite the dusty conditions and lack of driving visibility.

“You were just praying no one was in front of you,” Knight said.

Pat Caraher, retired Washington State Magazine editor, remembers a similar scene.

“We saw this darkness sweeping across the sky from the west,” Caraher said. “It was like night.”

Knight recalled the week at WSU following the blast as one of confusion and camaraderie. 

“The school couldn’t make up their mind whether WSU should be open or closed,” Knight said. 

Ash tracks from shoes were a common occurrence in buildings, mechanics were required to change filters in vent systems daily and Facilities Operations had to write a damper-closing program so ash would not be sucked into buildings. Crews also swept and hosed down parking lots regularly to control the flour-like ash.

“People really rallied to the cause,” Caraher said.

He recalled that the annual Golden Graduate reunion was scheduled for that week; however, the university cancelled the reunion and hosted a massive joint reunion with the classes of 1930 and 1931 the following year.

Though an inconvenience and a challenge, Knight said the Mount St. Helens eruption enabled community cohesion.

“It really brought everyone together,” Knight said. “Whether you were at work or at home, you worked as a team.”

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens blast, WSU will have artifacts from the event on display in Holland Library through May 25.

Lorena O’English, a social sciences reference librarian, said she has collected pictures, stories, a manuscript and obscure objects created with ash for the display. A virtual exhibit with digital pictures also will be featured.

“It’s highly Pullman centered,” O’English said.

The display also will examine what scientists at WSU have been doing to contribute to the study of Mount St. Helens during its recent rumblings and blasts in 2004 and 2005.


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