Thirty-eight years ago Mount St. Helens erupted, causing the most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history. Fifty-seven people were killed by the eruption and hundreds of square miles were reduced to wasteland.
It was a Sunday morning when the volcano erupted, causing a massive landslide, pyroclastic flow and sending ash 12 miles high into the air.
For nine hours, Mount St. Helens continued to erupt and about 540 million tons of ash fell over 22,000 square miles.
It took only a few hours for that ash to reach Montana, and by the next morning the state was blanketed in falling ash.
Zoe Ann Stoltz, a reference historian at the Montana Historical Society, was traveling from Cascade, Wash., to Libby with her husband and their two young daughters that day. Stoltz’s husband had been working as a logger in Cascade and the family was returning to Libby for a long weekend.
Stoltz said it’s a day she’ll never forget.
Initially Stoltz and her husband thought the large dark ash plume was a thunderstorm on the horizon. It wasn’t until they had stopped to get food at a McDonalds that they found out it was the volcano. The family quickly packed up their food and made for Libby.
“As young parents we were so worried because everything got dark and then there was this bizarre ash falling everywhere,” said Stoltz. “We had no idea whether it was toxic or it was benign but we had two babies in the car and we needed to get home where it was safe.”
The ash from the eruption was moving at an average speed of 60 miles per hour due to strong, high-altitude winds. The speed limit at the time was only 55 miles per hour.
Stoltz says that they were about 10 to 15 minutes ahead of the road closures due to poor visibility. About every 30 miles they had to stop to take the air filter out of their car to clean it due to the ash.
“I was never so happy to see Libby,” says Stoltz.
Then-Montana Gov. Thomas Judge declared a state of emergency because of the falling ash, ordering all nonessential government offices and businesses to close.
But not all businesses are capable of just locking up for the day. Ranchers like Candy Zion feared for her animals and what the ash might do to them.
“I’ll never forget it because it came in like a snowfall, but the sky was so gray,” says Zion.
Zion and her husband owned and worked a ranch outside Sun River where they bred quarter horses and raised cattle. When the ash began to fall they put the horses in their barn, but were worried that wouldn’t be enough.
“I’ll never forget closing the doors of the barn and thinking there’s no way we can keep this ash out of here,” says Zion, “It was our livelihood and I’m a horse person so I was more concerned about our animals than anything.”
A study by the U.S. Geological Service estimated a loss of $38 million in animals and animal products from the eruptions. While only a small part was attributed to livestock deaths, many animals needed longer periods of time to obtain market weight.
State archivist for Montana Jodie Foley was sixteen at the time of the eruption and lived in Missoula. Foley says that unless you were there it’s hard to truly get a sense of what it was like when the ash fell.
“It was just such a creepy feeling,” says Foley, “Everything was so quiet, there was this weird light and it was already in the heat of the day.“
School was canceled for many days after the ash fell, so kids were at home. Some children went outside to play in the ash.
“We saw kids out in the stuff and they were starting to cough so you would kind of get an inkling that ‘maybe we shouldn’t do that’,” says Foley.
Many residents in Montana bottled up some of the ash as a keepsake to remember the event.
In the days after the eruption Montanans cleaned ash off their cars and homes. Montana Department of Transportation plows ran in many parts of the state to clear the roads.
The dust stayed around for weeks before spring rain washed much of it away. For the people that lived through it, the memories are just as vivid as they were when ash fell from the sky like snow.