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Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company
Local News : Sunday, May 14, 2000

Mount St. Helens remembered: 'God is speaking'
by Ross Anderson
Seattle Times staff reporter

RITZVILLE, Adams County - Twenty years later, Bob Gross clearly remembers the strange sonic boom that rattled the windows of his home here in Eastern Washington.

He glanced out an open window into a sparkling Sunday morning, where fields of new spring wheat shimmered under a cloudless blue sky. "That," he said to himself, "was not normal."

Many of his neighbors in this tidy farming town of 1,900 heard that distant rumble the morning of May 18, 1980. But none linked it to the Mount St. Helens volcano whose geological murmurings had been getting so much attention on the far side of the Cascades.

And none dreamed they would spend weeks and millions of dollars dealing with its effects. By noon of that spring Sunday, Ritzville was plunged into darkness by an act of nature as dramatic and deadly as any in Northwest history.

Come early afternoon, much of Eastern Washington was inundated with tons of ash blown from the molten guts of a mountain 200 miles away. Townsfolk were left scrambling to house and feed thousands of travelers stranded by volcanic ash that fouled cars and closed roads in all directions.

It would take weeks, even months, for Ritzville to dig itself out. But, as it struggled with Nature's fallout, this town and dozens of others across the state rediscovered something important about themselves. Their stories offered a modicum of relief from the tragedy that took 57 lives at ground zero. Theirs is a story of charity, ingenuity and community in the face of a bizarre natural disaster.

Vast dark cloud races east

Most Washingtonians never heard the blast, nor experienced the mudflows. To them, Mount St. Helens will be remembered for the massive cloud that quickly darkened much of Washington and eventually parts of 10 other states.

The cloud rained ash as far away as North Dakota. It continued eastward, where it was detected along the eastern seaboard two days later. Scientists say traces of that mountain drifted around the globe for weeks, even years.

Within 15 minutes of the eruption, the mass of pulverized rock and ash shot up 12 miles - almost twice the normal altitude of a cruising jetliner - where it was caught by a southwest wind. By 9 a.m., the cloud was oblong-shaped, 40 miles long, 30 wide and more than 6 miles deep.

The sleepy milltown of Morton, 22 miles north of the mountain, was the first to taste the stuff. The volcanic storm billowed over the ridge south of town, spewing spikes of light and ashen mudballs the size of pencil erasers.

As the ash fell, Morton Police Chief Jody Ulery grabbed a phone and dialed state officials in Olympia.

"The mountain just blew!" he exclaimed.

"We have no official confirmation of that," he was told.

"I'm confirming it," he shouted. "We're up to our ass in ash!"

The town took on a ghostly pall. Some people jumped in cars and tried to outrun the ash, but most stood and gazed in awe.

Before 10 a.m. the cloud had crested the Cascades and was racing toward Yakima at 60 mph.

Yakima Police Chief Jack LaRue, now retired, was packing gear into his car for a Sunday outing when he detected an odd, metallic sizzle - coarse, black sand peppering his car. Instead, he drove downtown, where the streetlights were flickering on.

"It became obvious there was going to be a problem," he says.

By midday, LaRue's town was blanketed by up to 2 inches of sand-like ash. It covered roofs, roads, lawns. It clogged engine air filters and seeped into the sewer system, eventually closing down the sewage-treatment plant.

But nobody died, LaRue stresses. In fact, there were few real emergencies. The police used their cars sparingly and, when they did, wrapped nylon stockings around the air filters. Most people waited until the ash stopped falling, took a deep breath and began to clean up.

"It took a while to figure out how to do that. The stuff didn't sweep and it didn't wash away. Water just turned it into a paste."

The cloud surged on east, across the Columbia River to Moses Lake and Interstate 90. Hundreds, then thousands of motorists were brought to a standstill as swirling ash clogged engines and cut visibility to a few feet. As roads closed, travelers searched for refuge.

More than 2,000 found their way to Ritzville, which because of the whims of wind and weather, got more than its share of that mountain. And because it lies at the junction of two major highways, it got more than its share of refugees.

Inundated with ash, people

Ritzville is a farm town 200 miles east of Mount St. Helens. A century ago, it was the shipping center for some of the richest wheatlands in the nation. Even now, the town is dominated by the aging grain silos clustered along the railroad tracks. But most people know it as a gas stop on I-90 between Moses Lake and Spokane.

About noon, most townspeople were emerging from church services when they got their first look at the approaching cloud. Rea Thompson, a former Texan who was pastor at the Methodist church, was struck by the similarity to a Midwest tornado cloud - only bigger and more spectacular. Another town resident recalls it as "kind of beautiful," the billowing black cloud set against a bright, blue sky, its shadow racing across the rolling landscape.

By early afternoon, the town was nearly dark and the ash began to fall - not the mudballs of Morton, nor the black sand of Yakima, but a light-gray ash not unlike that at the bottom of a backyard barbeque.

With the ash came people - travelers forced off I-90 and route 395, which converge just outside Ritzville.

Down at the Colwell Motor Inn, Diane Keetch rented out all 25 rooms and got on the phone to handle the overflow. "We had people staying in the basement," she recalls. "We had total strangers who volunteered to share rooms."

Faced with an invasion of 2,000 people, police pleaded for help from churches, schools and townspeople. The first to show up at the Methodist church was a carload of Spokane college students who had motored west in hopes of getting a closer look at the volcano.

Expecting more, Pastor Thompson ventured into the ashfall to buy pancake mix and syrup. When he returned, there were 30 to 40 more people. He went back to the store, and came home to find 60 more. That night, there were 127 people sleeping in the Methodist church and parsonage.

Sightseers returning from the Lilac Festival in Spokane, cowboys from a calf-roping competition, traveling salesmen, two parade-float drivers dressed in pink frilled shirts and tuxedoes.

There were a couple of Spokane honeymooners, put up at the local Victorian mansion; and a Seattle couple, who had taken the weekend to plan their divorce.

A Spokane golfer, stranded 15 miles west of town, had unloaded his electric golf cart and puttered down the empty freeway to town.

School officials opened up school buildings and took in about 500 people. The manager of the local Eagles club took in 21, and some of her neighbors took as many as 10 each.

Bob Gross, who had heard the explosion at 8:30, had long since found his way to his Circle T Inn on Main Street. By 3 p.m., the restaurant and bar were jammed with hungry travelers.

"There was ash everywhere from people coming in the door and dusting off," he recalls. "Everything was turning gray - the wall, the tabletops, even the food."

Back at the church, Rea Thompson watched leaders emerge. Some took over the kitchen, and soon the Methodist church was cooking meals for the motel guests as well. One woman signed people up for the single shower at Thompson's house. Still others washed dishes or entertained children.

Down at the schoolhouse, visitors organized an intricate system for keeping ash out of the building - a chain of vacuum cleaners people used to clean themselves off leading directly to the showers. Gross finally closed his restaurant at 1 a.m. and drove home. The ashen rain had lightened somewhat, leaving a blanket 4 inches deep, everywhere. Ritzville looked like a town at the bottom of the ocean.

350 tons per acre

Monday morning broke bright and clear, the ash cloud having moved on to blanket Spokane, Pullman, Missoula and beyond. Folks remember an uncommon silence - no birds, no crickets, no wind.

Ritzville farmers peered across fields of young wheat and saw a catastrophe - rows of paintbrush heads jutting from a sea of gray.

With the unexpected guests taken care of, Ritzville got down to business. The ash was, after all, pulverized rock. Based on the weight of accumulated ash on a truck scale on the edge of town, officials calculated the stuff weighed 350 tons per acre. Enough to collapse roofs.

The volunteer fire department went to work, starting with the flat roofs downtown, then moving into neighborhoods.

Local stores were open, but the visitors were running out of cash. Phil Langford, the local bank manager, offered to cash visitors' checks - no questions asked. If they bounce, so be it, he said. Not one did.

Kirk Danekas, the funeral-home operator who had just been elected mayor, feared the town would run out of basics - from eggs to toothbrushes. No shipments arrived for two more days.

Like dozens of other Eastern Washington towns, Ritzville was completely isolated. Those who dared to drive even in town were stopped by ash-clogged engines. By Monday, some enterprising farmers figured the trick was to draw air from about 8 feet above the ground. They fashioned snorkels to their cars, trucks and tractors - flexible dryer hose that ran from from the air intake, past the grill and up poles.

Down at the church, visitors entertained themselves with folk songs - "This ash is your ash/this ash is my ash." They mixed ash and water to sculpt volcanoes.

Monday night, the mayor walked into one tavern and concluded folks were having too good a time. "Things were about to get ugly," he said. So he closed the bars; Ritzville was dry.

Wednesday, the State Patrol organized the first convoys of travelers, escorting them out into the ashen landscape. By noon Thursday, most of the visitors were gone, and the people of Eastern Washington focused on cleanup.

Back in Yakima, City Manager Dick Zais assembled a small army. By midweek help came from the National Guard, neighborhood block watches and convoys of people and equipment sent from as far as Portland and Seattle.

The federal government promised to help, reimbursing costs of cleanup and repairs. But local officials were left to devise strategies for digging out.

"Government gets criticized for being unable to react, but we proved the opposite," says Zais, who is still city manager. "This community found the will and strength to work together."

Ritzville had twice as much ash - 4 inches as opposed to Yakima's 2 - and fewer resources. But it, too, got help from cities and counties across the state. Over the next few weeks, Ritzville scooped up an estimated 780,000 tons of ash in everything from wheelbarrows to dump trucks, and dumped it into an old gravel pit on the north side of town.

There it sits to this day, topped with green grass.

Nobody to blame; nobody to sue

It took months, but local officials eventually got the federal help they needed. It was a paperwork nightmare, Danekas recalls. Brooms were reimbursible, but shovels were not. "When we totaled everything up, we had $80,000 left over, and nobody to give the money back to," he says. "We used it to buy a new street sweeper."

But other memories are more uplifting. One group of travelers had such a good time in Ritzville they had a reunion a year later. The couple that had talked divorce stayed married - and moved to Ritzville.

"It was an amazing week, but it really brought this community together," says Bruce Benzell, the town barber and former volunteer fire chief. "I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the wind had blown that stuff up to Seattle. I believe we survived because we're small."

Maybe. Yakima, a city of more than 50,000, wasn't so small. And a generation later, that city still observes the anniversary with a citywide "Greenup-Cleanup" campaign.

There was something about this extraordinary act of nature that brought out the best in people, says Zais. There was nobody to blame, nobody to sue. "This was nature," he says. "And people understand that."

For a few farms, particularly hay and alfalfa, the ash proved to be a one-time disaster. And the persistent ash damaged farm equipment for months, even years after.

State officials later estimated the total cost at $860 million, mostly from destruction of roads and bridges and blown-down timber closer to the mountain.

For wheat farmers, it may actually have been a godsend. Young wheat is especially thirsty. The ash sealed moisture in the ground, helping make the summer harvest of 1980 one of Ritzville's best.

Even this ultimate act of geological violence proved to be part of Mother Nature's grand scheme. The rich, dark, volcanic soils that nourish the Northwest breadbasket got a replenishing dose of ash.

"We tend to take nature for granted," observes Jack LaRue, the former police chief in Yakima.

"But maybe that volcano reminded us that we're not the big shots we thought we were. That, in the greater scheme of things, we're little amoeba on this great, green Earth."

Ross Anderson's phone message number is 206-464-2061.

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