Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens: 40 years ago to the day and not much has changed

Mount St. Helens: 40 years ago to the day and not much has changed

It was shaping up to be an eventful Sunday in Portland on May 18, 1980. I just had no idea, early that morning, how eventful it would be.

I was covering the Portland Beavers for the Oregon Journal in those days and had an afternoon game to write about, in what was then Civic Stadium.

But that wasn’t what I was looking forward to on that Sunday afternoon. My son, Will, turned six on May 18 and his birthday party was scheduled to take place in the left-field bleachers at the ballpark. I was excited about seeing all those six-year-olds scrambling around the roomy bleachers having a good time.

But you know by now, that day turned dark. Literally. And of course, that game was postponed because Mount St. Helens -- which had been ominously angry since late March -- finally exploded. And I mean REALLY exploded.

It sent a plume of ash 15 miles high. The top 1,300 feet of the mountain was blown away -- gone. A lethal flow of searing hot ash and gas flowed down what was left of the mountain.

Ash turned day into night all over the Pacific Northwest and managed to hit 11 states. The direct death toll took days to figure, but the final number was set at 57.

And the aftermath was pandemic like. The ashfall was everywhere -- and dangerous. Some of the ash contained glass shards and pumice, making masks mandatory for those outside in the midst of it.

It was all over roads and cars and I recall how careful you had to be about getting it off your car because of the scratches it would cause.

Portland wasn’t the hardest hit area, though. We were lucky. Winds carried most of the ash in a northeasterly direction, with Yakima and Spokane hard hit.

And there was a psychological toll, too. Nobody was quite sure what would happen next. Would Mt. Hood blow? Or of more concern to Portlanders, what about Mt. Tabor? Would there be some sort of chain reaction there, causing it to erupt?

Or did you not know that Portland is one of only six cities in the country with an extinct volcano within its city limits?

For a while, the Pacific Northwest lived with tragedy of lives and property destroyed and even longer with the worry of another eruption, either at Mount St. Helens or somewhere else.

It eventually went away, though, just as the ash did.

The Beavers took a few days off before resuming their schedule. The birthday party eventually happened, too, at home a few days later.

The 6-year-old has turned into a 46-year-old, to be celebrating tonight with Mexican food, a brownie sundae and his family, socially distancing far away, in Kentucky.

Again, though, with no baseball game to watch. And I think we both are a bit sad about that, just as we were 40 years ago.