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Flashback Friday: Minnesotan was stranded in rain of ash from Mount St. Helens eruption 39 years ago

May 17, 2019 10:45 AM

Jeff Bruhjell was in the midst of helping his brother move from Minneapolis to Seattle 39 years ago this week, driving a Cadillac on Interstate 90 in eastern Washington.

Then, out of nowhere, everything went dark.

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"All of a sudden, it was like midnight at noon," he recalls. "At first, I thought it was a terrible thunderstorm. But then I realized it wasn't a thunderstorm at all. Black ash was falling everywhere. You couldn't see daylight.

"I had trucks crashing all around me. I ended up in the ditch in the median in the middle of the freeway. I just kept praying that no truck would hit me. Because no one could see anything."

The falling ash was the result of a volcanic eruption that had occurred hours earlier at Mount St. Helens, located around 195 miles to the west.

The eruption, which took place just after 8:30 a.m. on May 18, 1980, killed 57 people and thousands of animals. It was the most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history, according to the United States Geological Survey.

A cloud of ash and gas was blown more than 15 miles into the air. And over the course of the day, winds blew 520 million tons of the ash eastward, eventually reaching as far away as northwestern Minnesota and Oklahoma.

But it was in eastern Washington where the ash fell like rain, causing complete darkness in places like Ritzville, located directly in the path of the ash cloud.

That caused stranded motorists - including Bruhjell, his brother and his sister-in-law - to seek shelter in the now ash-strewn town.

In all, nearly two inches of ash covered the ground there, according to the online Mount St. Helens Information Resource Center and Visitors Guide.

"It felt like it was snowing for two days," Bruhjell said.

After finally getting out of his car, Bruhjell said he started walking, seeking shelter as well as trying to find his brother and sister-in-law who had been traveling in front of him in a separate vehicle.

"I saw a light and started walking toward it," he recalls. "I got to the next freeway exit and there was a Perkins there. All sorts of people came in just covered in ash. It looked like there'd been a snowstorm.

"Eventually, they said we had to leave. I finally reconnected with my brother and his wife. And we ended up in a church where they took us in and fed us for three or four days before we were finally able to get out."

Bruhjell, who was born and raised in Minnesota but now resides in Connecticut, flew home to Minneapolis. His brother had to return to Ritzville to retrieve the Cadillac, which was now choked with ash.

"I think he got it started, but it broke down again on the way and he had to get it towed into Seattle," he said. "The ash had just gotten into everything."

He said he brought a container of the ash home with him, though he's not sure where that is these days.

And 39 years later, he still looks back in amazement at having gone through the experience.

"The ash went up hot, but it came down cool," he said. "It really was coming down like snow and it blocked out all the sunlight. It was the craziest thing I've ever seen.

"It's just wild to look back and think you were there when something like that happened."

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Credits

Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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