41 years ago last month one of the largest natural disasters in my lifetime happened, and it also my first big news story. I was running my small town newspaper on the Washington coast, and for weeks there had been news reports that Mount Saint Helens could erupt at any time. It finally did on May 18, 1980.
Our house in Aberdeen, on Grays Harbor, was about 150 miles north and west of the mountain, and we didn’t know it had erupted until we woke up that Sunday morning to news bulletins. The mass eruption killed over 50 people and destroyed hundreds of square miles of forest. The massive cloud from the explosion deposited ash in eleven states and two Canadian provinces.
Like every newsperson in the region, I wanted to be part of the story. A doctor friend of mine had a small airplane, and the next day we flew in that direction, getting as close as we safely could. I managed to get some good photographs of the mountain still belching steam and ash 24 hours after the eruption and of miles of trees that were laid flat. I saw bombed-out places in Vietnam that did not look any worse.
Back home in Aberdeen, those who were not glued to their television sets were trying to figure out a way to make a buck off of the event. A young man named Dave who worked for me in my print shop promptly started producing bumper stickers and screen-printed T-shirts that said Mount Saint Helens Made An Ash Of Herself or asked Where Were You When The Mountain Blew? One businessman in town who was always looking for a way to make a quick buck hired two guys to take his van and pickup truck and get as close as they could and shovel them full of ash because he was convinced that he would be able to put the ash into small glass vials and sell them for $5 each. That didn’t work out too well for him because, A. the guys he hired were drunks who did not manage to collect very much ash, and B. because there was so much of it that anybody who wanted ash got all they wanted and more, and C. because the gritty stuff clogged his vehicles’ air filters, so the guys took the filters off to make the vehicles run better, which means they sucked in a lot of the nasty crap, causing all kinds of engine problems.
But that wasn’t the only thing that destroyed his master plan to, like the proverbial Phoenix, rise from ashes as a rich man. Exactly one week later, on May 25, we awoke to a gray, dismal day, which didn’t surprise me because the weather was often gray and dismal in that part of the world. But it turned out there was another reason for it. Mount Saint Helens had a second smaller explosion, and while the prevailing winds the first time had taken everything east, this time they had shifted, and everything in town was blanketed in a quarter-inch of gray, gritty ash. My buddy Josh, the businessman, could have saved himself a lot of time and money if he had just waited a week. He’d have all the ash he could ever want right at home!
People today complain about having to wear a facemask, but back then everybody was wearing a mask because you couldn’t stand to breathe that stuff in until it all finally settled. Even then, cars driving down the street would throw it back up again. I knew several people with respiratory problems who were forced to stay inside for a couple of weeks.
The businessman I told you about wasn’t the only one who learned an expensive lesson from the explosion of Mount Saint Helens. When it went off the second time and hit us, several news people from Seattle, Portland, and other areas came to Aberdeen to cover the story, nobody knowing if there would be a third eruption and cause a lot of damage in our area. This was before the days of digital cameras and cell phones, and they descended on my little newspaper office, asking if I would help my fellow journalists out. I figured sure, why not? They used our place as their headquarters, disrupting our own operation while they called in their reports and used our darkroom, typewriters, and computer typesetter. A couple of days later, when it was determined there would not be a third massive eruption, they thanked me and left. It wasn’t until I got my phone bill, something like $1,300, that I realized the price of being a good guy to my fellow journalists. I never received a penny of compensation or even mention of our cooperation in their stories. As my wife always tells me, no good deed goes unpunished.
Thought for The Day – When you say yes to others, make sure you’re not saying no to yourself.