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State collecting personal histories from Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption

Some dates become forever etched in history.

Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Sept. 11, 2001, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In Southwest Washington, a historic date is May 18, 1980, when Mount St. Helens erupted with nearly unimaginable fury.

Washington State Parks is collecting oral and written histories for an exhibit next year marking the 40th anniversary of the catastrophic eruption that tore 1,300 feet from the volcano’s summit, destroyed 230 square miles of forests and meadows and killed 57 people.

Alysa Adams, an interpretive specialist at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center east of Castle Rock, said the state wants to record the memories of people from when St. Helens blew its top.

“This not going to be a collection of survivor stories,” she said. “That story has already been told.”

People have a number of options for submitting their stories from May 18, 1980:

• Drop by the sharing corner at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, 3029 Spirit Lake Highway, and fill out contact information and complete a journal entry.

• Email a brief description of your experience, along with your contact information, to:

• Call the visitor center, 360-274-0962, to see if park employees want to schedule an interview.

“Our goal is to take these audio recordings, these journal entries, and put them into an exhibit for people to experience,” Adams said. “We can’t promise every single individual that, ‘You are going to be the star of our exhibit,’ but we want to hear all these stories.”

Adams encouraged people to tell their stories, no matter how close or how far they were from the volcano’s eruption.

“The stories people don’t think are important are important for us,” she said.

During the eruption, a massive ash cloud soared more than 60,000 feet into the atmosphere, where winds sent 520 million tons of ash eastward. In Yakima, the ash cloud blocked out the sun, turned day into night and dumped an estimated 600,000 tons of ash on the city.

The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane is conducting a parallel effort to collect stories from Eastern Washington residents affected by the ash. The museum and Washington State Parks may share stories collected between the facilities.

Throughout this winter, parks employees will use written and oral histories to develop a temporary exhibit at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center.

The exhibit will be available from mid-May 2020 through October 2020, with access included in the visitor center’s regular admission. The temporary display also will showcase historical publications and artifacts from the 1980 eruption.

Adams said the visitor center wants to wrap up most of its interviews by the end of November, but that is not a hard deadline for people to submit information.

Washington State Parks already has collected fascinating stories from people recounting what they saw, did and thought on that fateful Sunday in May 1980.

“We have a very, very thick overflowing binder of really exciting experiences,” Adams said. “We are excited to meet these people. It all begins with a small contact.”


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