MOUNT ST. HELENS, Wash. - Mount St. Helens, the volcano that blew its top with cataclysmic force in 1980, erupted for the first time in 18 years today, belching a huge column of white steam and ash after days of rumblings under the mountain.
The noontime eruption cast a haze across the horizon as the roiling plume rose from the nearly 1,000-foot-tall lava dome, forcing Alaska Airlines to cancel flights and divert others around the ash.
"It was such a thrill!" said Faye Ray, a retired teacher who watched from an observatory near the mountain. "I just felt we would see something today and we did."
Scientists had been predicting just such an eruption for days because of thousands of earthquakes and signs that the rock inside the crater was expanding rapidly.
The eruption was nowhere near what happened 24 years ago, when 57 people were killed and towns up to 250 miles away were showered with rock and ash.
About 20 minutes after today's eruption, the mountain calmed and the plume began to dissipate. The ash appeared to pose no threat to anyone, but scientists warned that people living southwest of the mountain might notice a fine film of ash on their cars. No evacuations were ordered, and there was no sign of any lava oozing from the volcano.
Few people live near the mountain, about 100 miles south of Seattle. The closest structure is the Johnston Ridge Observatory, about five miles from the crater.
"It wasn't lava-y, so I wasn't scared," said Lorain Weatherby, who was working a snack bar down the road from St. Helens. "It was like a big white cloud."
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