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Mount Spurr erupts: Anchorage wheezes to a halt in clouds of ash

  • Author: Marilee Enge, Tom Kizzia and Bruce Melzer, Anchorage Daily News
  • Updated: May 23, 2018
  • Published August 19, 1992

Originally published on Aug. 19, 1992

Mount Spurr erupted Tuesday for the second time this summer, blowing a plume of ash 11 miles high, halting air traffic and blackening the evening sky over southcentral Alaska. By 8 p.m, ash was falling like rain in West Anchorage neighborhoods, street lights flickered on and a sulfurous smell hung in the air. Four Southcentral airports, including Anchorage International, were closed by 8:15 p.m., but commercial airlines had already grounded their planes.

Vulcanologist Robert McGinsey of the Alaska Volcano Observatory flew over the mountain as it was erupting Tuesday. He called the blast a “large, billowy, explosive event” and described “great big blocks being thrown up out of the cloud.”

Lying 80 miles west of Anchorage across Cook Inlet, Spurr first trembled at 3:35 p.m. Tuesday, and by 4:10 the first airplane pilot reported seeing a dark, ominous cloud rising from Crater Peak, according to the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

Half an hour later, Spurr exploded.

The ash cloud traveled 60,000 feet well into the stratosphere and winds carried it east and south across Anchorage and Turnagain Arm.

The volcano last blew on June 27, but it had been quiet since then and seismic stations on its slopes provided little warning of Tuesday’s blast.

By 8:45, just as the eruption had tapered off, Anchorage was engulfed in a darkness that could be felt and tasted.

“It looks like midnight in the middle of winter,” said Bayshore resident Melodie Gross.

“It’s like a scary movie,” said Mary Lou Wojtalik, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, as she peered out of her downtown office windows.

But at the same time, villagers in Tyonek southwest of Anchorage said the sun was shining.

“We can see it real good,” said Tyonek village president Don Standifer. “But fortunately the wind is blowing in the right direction.”

Tuesday’s eruption appeared to be bigger than the June blast, said Mike Doukas, a vulcanologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage. The June cloud was measured at 30,000 to 40,000 feet.

Winds blowing from the west and northwest were expected to spread the ash over a larger area than in June, when winds were blowing steadily to the north, Doukas said. Seismic measurements of Tuesday’s eruption made it appear somewhat stronger than June’s eruption.

Witnesses saw spectacular lightning displays in the cloud Tuesday, the result of intense static electricity generated by the billowing dust, said Steve McNutt, acting coordinating scientist for the volcano observatory. The presence of static electricity generally means much of the eruption material comes from fresh magma and has a high silica content, McNutt said. June’s eruption produced no lightning and much of the ash came from old rock that had plugged up the volcano’s cone, he said.

Ash collected like powdery snow on Anchorage’s streets, swirling around moving vehicles and obscuring motorists’ vision.

By midevening, the Anchorage Police Department announced officers would respond only to emergencies, and the municipal assembly abruptly ended its weekly meeting at 8:20 after racing through some final business. Alaska State Troopers activated the emergency broadcast system to warn drivers against venturing onto the highways.

Around Anchorage, customers lined up at local shops to buy air filters for their cars, and some merchants reported that they had sold out. Stores also saw a run on surgical masks.

Julie Bolger and her son, Kyle, stopped at the Boniface Mall to buy face masks to protect themselves from breathing the grit.

“I’m going home and getting out of this ash,” she said. “This stuff burns my throat.”

A supervisor at Grand Auto Supply in the Northern Lights Fred Meyer store said he sold about 160 air filters in two hours. The rush hit about 7:30.

“We just had a line all the way to the back of the store,” Jeff Newell said, barely able to pause between ringing up sales. “It’s been pretty crazy.”

Commercial flights to and from Anchorage were canceled and airline officials said planes may be grounded at least until this afternoon. The crew and aircraft for one Northwest Airlines flight planned to leave an hour early with no passengers, before the ash reached Anchorage, but an official said the empty flight was scrubbed.

Airline agents were busy calling passengers to advise them their flights were canceled, said Northwest cargo agent Dick Sanders. Four Northwest flights en route to Anchorage were sent back to their original stations.

United Airlines also canceled flights, leaving aircraft bound for Seattle and Chicago on the ground. Spokeswoman Kim Thomas said United had canceled its first three scheduled Wednesday flights out of Anchorage.

“We should get a better look once the sun comes up, but we don’t anticipate any new flights until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest,” she said.

At Elmendorf Air Force Base, officials began moving aircraft inside the hangars at the first report of an eruption. By the time the ash began falling, 28 planes that wouldn’t fit into hangars had been flown to other Alaska locations, said Maj. Ron McGee, a base spokesman.

The weather forecast in Anchorage was for no rain, a slight breeze but a chance of winds up to 25 miles per hour on Turnagain Arm and the Upper Hillside, creating a threat of troublesome blowing ash. After the Mount Redoubt eruption at Christmastime in 1989, ash lingered on the ground in Soldotna for several days, creating a dust cloud every time a car drove by.

Late Tuesday, the ash cloud was moving across the Kenai Peninsula, north of Seward toward Prince William Sound. There were reports of ash on the ground from Eagle River to Hope, but none on the central and southern communities on the Kenai Peninsula.

Even though the eruption began to taper off at 8 p.m., ash was expected to continue falling over Anchorage for several hours as the cloud drifted east.

Nursing supervisors at the city’s two major hospitals said no serious health problems were reported.

“Mostly, people are calling and asking for information, what to do,” said Yvonne Cairns at Providence Hospital. “We’re offering masks to any people out there that need them.”

Domino’s Pizza on Fifth Avenue delivered pizzas up until the heaviest ash fall about 8:30, manager Dave Western said. Then he shut down the operation.

“There’s no need to be going out there ruining your vehicle over pizza,” he told his drivers.

WHAT CLOSED

Anchorage International Airport, Merrill Field, Lake Hood, Elmendorf Air Force Base and Kenai Municipal Airport, People Mover buses

Daily News reporters Don Hunter, Natalie Phillips and Hugh Curran contributed to this story.

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