I awoke around 9am on Saturday, August 18, 1992. I work the grave yard shift. The news was still about Mt. Spurr, located about 78 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska and on the west side of Cook Inlet. Little did I know the next four days would be some of the more interesting days of my life.
[Seismicity remained low through July and the first half of August. Seismic monitoring of the volcano was somewhat compromised by the destruction of the crater rim station. Despite repeated attempts to reinstall the crater-rim station, the closest seismometer was now 4.8 km away. Only one shallow and two deep events were recorded between 12 August and 17 August. Perhaps the 27 June eruption “opened” the conduit, and allowed magma to rise undetected.]
I worked, then, as an aircraft mechanic for a major airline at the Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska. I was slated to go to work at 6pm that night and did what any father does on a Saturday with his boys.
[At 1538 on 18 August a 16-min episode of weak tremor including several LP events began. At 1548 a pilot reported an ash-rich plume. The main eruption began at 1642 when strong tremor was recorded on all Spurr stations. By 1658 a subplinian column thrust through low clouds to reach 11 km altitude. Large bombs were thrown 750 m above the vent Ultimately, the radar-determined plume top reached about 14 km — pilot reports were higher. Small pyroclastic flows descended the east and southeast flanks of Crater Peak. Some flows were dry and hot, and left coarse, clast-supported deposits with lobate, steep-fronted margins. Other flows mixed with snow and ice high on the cone and were more mobile and cooler. A late shower of mostly lithic blocks as large as 1 m were hurled as far as 3.8 km southeast of Crater Peak. The southeastward distribution of these deposits was controlled by the position of the vent against the northwest crater wall. More than 170 lightning strikes were detected by the AVO lightning detection system during the second half of the eruption. Eruption ended after 3 hours and 28 minutes at 2011, but intermediate and deep crustal seismicity increased afterward to levels comparable to those of mid-June.]
In the afternoon the Emergency Broadcast System activated on both the television and radio, warning the residents of Anchorage of the impending ash plume and instructing people to take shelter in their homes, to tape all door and window seals, and to place wet towels on the floor at the base of the door. We were also warned not to drive our vehicles for the next 24 hours or more because of the expected ash fall, and if we had to drive after the ash fall, to drive slowly so as to not stir up the ash that fell.
[The volume of August tephra is about 110×106 m3 (40×106 m3 DRE). Upper-level winds took the tephra plume east-southeast directly over Anchorage where sand-sized ash fell as thick as 3 mm. Beyond Anchorage, the axis of the plume crossed the Chugach Mountains and followed the coast toward Yakutat Bay. At Yakutat, 550 km downwind, ash fall was significant; at Juneau, 1000 km downwind, the plume was opaque enough to disrupt air traffic. Ash fall forced the closing of Anchorage International Airport for 20 hours. Air-quality alerts were issued during the ash fall and on the following day, as vehicular traffic resuspended the ash.]
When I heard the warning I informed my wife and children that I would be going to work early and to stay indoors until I came home. As I went to work people were hurrying home to avoid the approaching dust cloud. As I drove west on International Airport Road and as I crossed the bridge over the Minnesota Parkway, I looked to my left toward the Kenai Peninsula and could see the approaching ash cloud and the lightning flashing inside of it. The first thought I had was “is this how the end of the world will look like” and, ”what did I get myself into.” I made it to the maintenance office and checked in with operations to let them know that the maintenance department was manned and confirming that all flights to Anchorage were suspended until further notice. I called the other mechanics and informed them I would man the office, and they were to stay home. Four years later, I learned that this incident would be one of many items that would be used against me to terminate my employment, reinforcing the saying “no good deed goes unpunished”.
As the ash cloud approached, I went outside to experience it firsthand. Before the cloud arrived, it became eerily quiet. There was no bird noise to be heard. In fact there were no birds to be seen. Usually there are seagulls in the area and swallows flying around catching insects, and looking under the jet ways at their mud nests you could see two heads poking out of their nests. There was lightning flashing from cloud to cloud and as the ash cloud overcame me, even though I was under an overhang, the odor of sulfuric acid was strong and my exposed skin had a slight burning sensation. Breathing was uncomfortable, and my eyes started to burn from the acid in the air. In fact, it became downright uncomfortable being outside within a few minutes. I went back inside for the night. The next morning I drove home very slowly. We were warned not to use our windshield wipers to remove the ash from our front windows because the silica in the ash would scratch the windshields; we were instead to use water to wash the ash off the windows. In a few hours there were no gas masks, face masks, painter’s masks ,or anything like them in the town of Anchorage. Also gone were air filters and oil filters for most popular makes of vehicles. The best type of air cleaner for a vehicle is the oil bath type of air cleaner; AMZOIL sells a good oil-in-foam vehicle air cleaner. Many people sprayed rags with WD-40 and loosely placed them either into or tied around the intake horn of their air cleaners in the hope of trapping the abrasive silica and keeping it from going into their engine. During this event, which closed Anchorage Airport for 20 hours, the following night a KLM passenger 747 flew through the ash cloud on approach to Anchorage. They did not see the ash cloud in the dark night and, depending on who or which account you listen to and believe, the ash (which is mostly sand) entered the engines and coated the jet turbine blades with molten glass from the ingestion of the sand (ash) through the engine into the combustion chamber and out the exhaust. Three engines shut down from air loss and imbalance as the molten glass coated the turbine blades unevenly. The last one had a severe power loss. This airplane was coming out of the sky! The APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) was started by a quick-thinking flight engineer. This is necessary to provide air to the “Air Starters” on the jet engines to get them started. Long story short and many stained panties at about 5,000 or 10,000 feet (depending on who you talk to), the airplane landed at Anchorage International Airport. It stayed parked at the base of the tower for many months, until Boeing mechanics came and replaced all four engines, the APU, all air ducts, the air conditioning packs, and all of the windows. The ash cloud sand blasted the windows (the pilots’ windshields and the passenger windows), turning them opaque.
In an effort to help speed the city’s cleanup, the City of Anchorage announced that residents could go to their area fire station and get old fire hose, a nozzle, and a hydrant wrench to wash the ash out of neighborhood driveways and streets. Some people swept up the ash to sell to pottery makers and glass blowers. Not to contradict Hollywood, but a fire hydrant usually cannot be opened by a vehicle hitting it. The plug is spring loaded closed so you must turn it backwards (counter clockwise) to push the plug down into the pipe. I live close to a hydrant, so in my shed I now have a hydrant adapter where I can hook up two hoses to the large outlet of the hydrant. My system includes lever (ball) valves for both hoses, 650 feet of hose (enough to reach both of the neighbors’ houses on either side of me if there isno fire department response in a SHTF event), hose nozzles, and a hydrant wrench. I don’t have these for my neighbors’ benefit but to save my house from being burned down if their houses catch fire.
What did I learn from this event? At the time, I wasn’t considered a “prepper,” but up here you never know when the big one will hit again. We had some food, water, and oil lamps in the event we couldn’t get to the grocery store for a few days or if power was cut, since our electricity is from natural gas turbine generation. There was some concern at the time about power. We had our camping gear for cooking. We have two Coleman two-burner propane camp stoves, several one-pound bottles of propane, and a hose with an adaptor to attach to a 20 pound (or larger) bottle with a splitter to allow the use of two stoves at once. You can buy these at most camping stores. Painter’s masks were gone in a matter of hours, so we now have 100 paper painter’s masks and gas masks for our family. Vehicle air filters for the most popular brands were sold out in hours as were some oil filters. So I now have extra filters (more than two) for all of my vehicles, plus oil and grease. I have a double metal wall locker in my garage with all of this as well as windshield washer fluid, 50/50 antifreeze, RainX, wiper blades, spare hoses and belts, clean cloth rags, and other automotive items. Also, if I was uncomfortable being outside during the event, so will your animals. Bring them inside or provide shelter or some sort of protection for your pets and livestock. Have various size tarps or a roll of visqueen available for quick emergency shelters. With visqueen, take a stone, fold a piece of visqueen over it, and tie a rope around it. Now you can tie it up or get tarp kits at the camping area of your favorite store. Fortunately, there was no adverse civil activity during the event. This could be that at that time, most of the people here had some sort of cache of food, and many of us have at least one or more firearms and the will to use them. Also, I have in my home two sets of plastic window insulation kits. You can get these kits at hardware stores. They have double back (carpet) tape and a very clear plastic sheet. You place the tape around the window casing or trim inside of your home then use a hair drier to shrink it. This, in the winter, gives another layer of insulation for your windows or, in this case, another seal to keep the ash out. They give you some protection, andthey are clear enough to see through.
While this event was, for many of us, simply a minor inconvenience, it was serious for the elderly and people with asthma and other respiratory health issues.
Few people live near a volcano, yet there is always the threat of the large caldera known as Yellow Stone or Mount St. Helens to come alive again. Also, some of these tips could be used in a “Polar Vortex”– winter for most of us.
[Notes from Alaska Volcano Observatory]