ROSEBURG, Ore. — Almost all of us have a day that sticks in our memory as something we’ll never forget. Like the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, 9-11, or the day President Kennedy was shot. Next Tuesday, August 7th, marks the day in 1959 that many Southern Oregon residents will also never forget. It’s the day a truckload with more than six tons high explosives exploded and leveled much of downtown Roseburg, killing more than a dozen people and injuring dozens more.
The whole thing started about one in the morning when a fire in a trash can at Gerretson’s Building Supply Spread to nearby grass. Parked close by was a truck from Pacific Powder Company, loaded with four and a half tons of nitro carbonate and two tons of regular dynamite for road construction. A couple blocks away the driver, George Rutherford, was trying to get some sleep at the Umqua Hotel when he heard the sirens.
Rutherford woke up, and seeing the flames immediately knew the danger. He quickly dressed and ran to try to move his truck that he new could blow up at any moment…but he was too late. A huge explosion lit up the night sky and several firefighters and a traffic cop were killed instantly. Several other people died later of injuries. Rutherford was blown down by the blast, but survived.
Fire and emergency crews from as far away as Coos Bay and Eugene came to help. Dora Roos, and her husband, Aaron Boe, who ran the new TV station in town at the time, had just settled down from an evening of celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary.
“Aaron said, ‘I’m so tired. I don’t care if the town falls down,’ and next thing, well, whoom! And he said, ‘Okay!’” Doris Roos recalls. “And we went to the station. He didn’t want to leave me in the house alone ’cause he didn’t know what was going on.”
A firestorm developed soon after the blast. The Boe’s, and hundreds of other people, began flocking downtown to see what had happened. Some saw the fireball and thought the town had been bombed. Many houses had their windows blown out or walls cracked open, and over a hundred people were injured. Some were badly cut by flying glass. The explosion leveled seven city blocks and heavily damaged another 28 city blocks. Most of the windows in a four-mile radius were broken, some as far away as nine miles. The dynamite truck was vaporized.
The truck’s front axle is all that remained, and it landed, twisted like a pretzel, three and a half blocks away from ground zero. Railroad cars were blown off the rails, but their wheels stayed in place. For hours, there was concern propane tanks in the path of the fire could also explode. A steady stream of water prevented a second disaster, but a cloud of dust and smoke hung over the city for days. Some of the debris was just burned in place to speed up cleanup.
80% of the damage was covered by insurance. 12 homes and businesses were totally destroyed, including the junior high school. Nearly 300 more were damaged. Total damage in 1959 dollars amounted to about $12 million. Governor Mark Hatfield toured the devastation and brought in state and federal aid. It took all the glass companies in Southern Oregon to help get the storefronts closed up. It was the efforts of people working together that soon got Roseburg up and moving again.
For those who lived in Roseburg at the time of the blast, it’s something they’ll likely never forget. It also set a precedent all across the United States, as cities everywhere enacted ordinances against trucks carrying high explosives parking within city limits. According to the Oregon Historical Society, the Interstate Commerce Commission awarded damages of $1.2 million to victims of the blast in 1962. However, criminal proceedings found Pacific Powder Company not guilty of wrongdoing. At the time, laws covering shipment of explosives pertained only to common carriers and did not regulate privately contracted deliveries.