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'Late' jazz choir got unexpected view of eruption

In the wink of an eye, Richland music teacher Ted Baer saw Mount St. Helens change from a serene peak to a raging hell Sunday..

The trip his jazz choir students took last weekend will be hard to match in future excursions, he says.

"It was a good field trip, a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Baer said. "I don't think any of the kids will forget it." Baer, along with the 40 Columbia High School students, was returning from a jazz festival at Mount Hood Community College in' Portland early Sunday.

"I was a little upset with the kids because we got out of the motel so late," Baer said. "But if we had not been late, we would have missed the eruption completely. "

Baer said the students, were aware of the mountain's touchy disposition and had been asked if they would be able to see it as they drove along Interstate 84.

"We left Portland right around 8:20 a.m. and were just opposite Mount St. Helens when it went off," Baer said. "I had looked over my shoulder and saw it serenely sitting there and pointed it out to the students.

"As I looked back I saw one puff of smoke come out of it and commented that we might see some activity. Then the whole thing blew, just like an atomic bomb."

Baer said two smaller explosions followed and a giant mushroom cloud shot up, then flattened out and started moving east.

"I remember thinking, 'Somebody is going to get a whole lot of dust , ' " Baer said.

He said group members didn't realize they had seen a major eruption until they reached Boardman and saw a huge black cloud forming. By the time the group reached Richland, the grimy ash was falling. But at least they made it home. More than 100 band students from Kamiakin High School in Kennewick remained stranded in Cheney early today because of road closures due to the ash. They are at Eastern Washington University.

Ray Byrd, a Richland mountaineer, was at the summit of Mount Hood when the volcano blew, but he and about 100 others at the summit "didn't think it was anything," he said.

"It looked like a factory putting up smoke," Byrd said. He and about 45 other Tri-Citians on an Inter-Mountain Alpine Club trip didn't realize the extent of the eruption until they returned to the Tri-Cities - about the same time ash was falling here.

Chuck Meyers, another Richland resident, was climbing Mount Rainier with a friend from Seattle when the mountain blew.

"It was an incredible thing once we figured, out what was going on," he said. At the 13,000-foot level, he

and his companion couldn't see the volcano - just what appeared to be storm clouds.

"Not until ash began to fall and we smelled sulfur did we square it with Mount St. Helens," he said. Ash particles the size of BBs began covering the snow, he said.

"It looked like a horrendous storm like nothing I've seen before,' ' Meyers said. "Pretty soon the black cloud's came down and we couldn't see." The two spent about 10 minutes on the summit, he said.

And a group of 110 music students from Hanford High School got back to town late Tuesday after what was to have been a weekend trip.

The group had toured several Western Washington towns and was headed home over Snoqualmie Pass on Sunday when the ash hit.

Teacher John Blake said the charter buses had to creep the last 20 miles into Ellensburg, where the group was put up at Central Washington University for two nights.

"There was a massive jam-up in Ellensburg. Everyone was trying to find a way out of the stuff and there was nowhere to go," Blake said.

The students put on skits and played music and danced to help pass the tine, Blake said.

Finally, late Tuesday the group saw sunlight for the first time in three days as their ash-covered buses pulled into Toppenish, one of the last groups to make it down Interstate 82 before the road was closed again.