Cloud of steam, ash issues from Mount St. Helens

Onlookers gather, hoping to see predicted eruption

October 05, 2004|By Vincent J. Schodolski | Vincent J. Schodolski,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Wash. - One minute the cloud of steam and ash wasn't there and the next minute it was.

For about 30 minutes at midmorning yesterday, the Mount St. Helens volcano rumbled to life, filling a crystal blue early autumn sky with more evidence of the seismic activity within the crater.

"It was awesome," said resident Sandra Harrington. She was standing with a crowd of about two dozen onlookers on a roadside about 10 miles from the volcano.

The mood among the crowd was light, as long-range lenses were snapped onto digital cameras and the zooms of video cameras closed in on the plume of steam and ash.

"It can get tedious," said area resident Ed Baxter. "They say something will happen before this is all over, but they can't say when."

Geologists say this kind of seismic activity could go on for weeks, and they say there is a 70 percent chance that there will be some kind of eruption before the volcano goes quiet again.

They have repeatedly said that the eruption, if it comes, will not be as severe as the huge, deadly blast in 1980 that killed 57 people and turned the area around Mount St. Helens into a moonscape.

So far the dome of magma inside the crater has risen about 50 feet and was holding steady after each release of steam and ash as was seen yesterday. By contrast, the magma dome rose by 450 feet prior to the 1980 eruption.

Perhaps because scientists are not warning of a major eruption, people around the volcano in southern Washington state appear to be more intrigued than intimidated.

Over the weekend, thousands of people gathered at several outlooks to watch the volcano, hoping to see an eruption. Many brought folding chairs and coolers, creating the atmosphere of a tailgate party. At Rosie's restaurant in nearby Woodland, Wash., a short-order cook and waitress debated calling the day's special a Mount St. Helens burger - half off.

Nonetheless, scientists left the alert level at 3, indicating an eruption was very likely. State officials asked the Federal Aviation Administration to close the airspace over Mount St. Helens.

Samples of the discharged material analyzed by geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver were found to contain mainly ground rock, but further tests were being conducted.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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