With morning cup of coffee in hand… the local news just reminded me that 40 years ago today, I was taught a lesson that as much as I thought differently…. I was not invincible.
The morning of May 18. 1980…
I woke up to what I thought was the sound of thunder. It was my first teenage camping trip with friends, before I even had a driver’s license, and with all the buzz about a volcano rumbling and spurting, we thought it would be a great idea to see what all the fuss was about. Luckily we had enough sense to keep a fair distance setting up our tents on the southeast slopes of Mount Rainier – about 50 miles north and out of what they called the red zone. That was the area officials thought of as the danger area around the mountain as it was acting up. The plan was to swing past the edges of the red zone – as close as they would allow to take pictures on our way back home to eastern Washington later that day.
We heard what we thought was thunder and in a semi awake state, realized we weren’t exactly rain proof, so quickly packed up camp, tossed everything in the car and started to make our way out to the main road and towards the infamous volcano.
As we drove, the sky was getting darker and darker. Peculiar to say the least. But what really had us going was when pellets started hitting the car… I reached out of the cracked window and felt not rain, but dry ash. Ok…. here is where panic ensues… but we weren’t thinking about the volcano…… no….. Cause at that age, the only thing you think about when it comes to volcanoes erupting is the slow moving reddish ooze that spills over edges of your 7th grade science experiment. This was much more sinister. You see… it was 1980. Still the middle of the cold war where the USA and its allies decided to boycott the Summer Olympics cause relations were so frosty. My friends and I lived very close to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation which was established as part of the Manhattan Project to manufacture the makings of some very powerful weapons. Dry ash – cold war – nuclear reservation site…. You do the math of what a car of teens had initially deduced as being the fate of our families and most likely .. us.
The sky turned so dark we couldn’t see the road so we pulled to the side and waited. Within minutes it was so dark you could barely see your hand in front of your face. It was getting uncomfortable to breathe so we grabbed extra clothes and used them as makeshift masks….. and we waited not really knowing what was going to happen next. Happily… nothing did. Eventually the skies lightened and we waited… Everything around us… covered in ash. I remember watching a couple of deer trying to figure out what direction they should go, as they navigated the deep piles of ash that were on everything. We were stuck. Even if we could see the road, the air filter on the car wouldn’t last but a few minutes. So we waited. Eventually we realized it had to be the volcano as anything we were pondering would have killed us by then, or at least had us pretty sick. Our assumptions were verified by the man driving snow (or in our case…ash..) removal equipment who found us as he was trying to clear roads. We rode with him till we made it to one of the ski lodges on the mountain. It served as a shelter to many campers caught in this incredible show of Mother Nature’s strength. It was severla days before we could get a call out to our families to let them know we were ok and several more before we made it home. Because of the ash on the roads, the national guard kept us at the lodge until it was clear enough to travel. (or at least clear enough for us to try and hitch a ride home with fellow stranded guests before the gates were lifted to leave.. thats another story for a later time and an adult beverage…)
It took me several years before I could go camping again… and several more before I was able to visit the visitors center that now stands offering this view of the mountain today.
40 years ago today – 1280 feet of a mountain & its entire side was blown off releasing 24 megatons of thermal energy, 7 of which were a direct result of the blast, equivalent to 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
57 people killed, and 54 of those were outside of the “red zone”.
For me, today is about remembering those who lost their lives, being grateful that I have mine, smiling with a sense of gratitude to all those who were trapped with us and helped each other out with food, water shelter & hugs. Thankful we didn’t wake up early and head closer to the mountain to try and take pictures of the unusual event.
And it’s a reminder to always have respect for Mother Nature and never take her gifts for granted.