Dynamite blast destroyed downtown Roseburg in 1959; decades later, similar explosion hits Beirut


The horrific explosion in Beirut this week made legendary news photographer David Hume Kennerly think of his childhood in Roseburg.

“I was 12 years old and was watching from my open bedroom window as fire consumed a building supply store a few blocks away,” he wrote on Facebook. “I still vividly remember the huge explosion that followed. The concussion blew me across the room, broke every window in our house, and showered the neighborhood with burning wood.”

That explosion took place early in the morning on Aug. 7, 1959, when the small blaze at the Gerretsen Building Supply store sparked a load of dynamite, compounded from ammonium nitrate and oil, that was sitting in a parked truck. The truck’s driver was staying at a nearby hotel. When he learned of the fire in the store, he started to run to his vehicle, but he didn’t make it.

“Center of City Devastated by Shattering Dynamite Blast,” The Oregonian blared across the length of its front page the next day.

Reporter Leverett G. Richards described confusion and fear on the southern Oregon city’s downtown streets as rescuers “poked through the ruins of eight blocks demolished and 22 more heavily damaged.”

Downtown Roseburg lies in ruin on Aug. 8. 1959, “virtually wiped off the map.” (The Oregonian)

1959 Press Photo Aerial view of the disaster in Roseburg Oregon

Aerial photograph by Oregonian Photographer Vern Lewis shows Roseburg disaster. (The Oregonian)

The explosion caused windows seven miles away to explode. Early reports declared nine dead, including the city’s assistant fire chief, and many more missing.

The blast damaged more than 300 businesses and outright destroyed 12 homes.

In the moments before the explosion, Roseburg police officer Sam Gosso had spotted “a little fire in some rubbish” next to the supply store and headed toward it, figuring he would need to direct traffic and discourage looky-loos.

“I no sooner stepped out of the car than I heard someone holler, ‘Get the hell out of here, that dynamite is going to blow!’” he later recalled. “The next thing I knew, I came to about 100 feet away. The blast had hurled me and the police car against a wall. It looked like an A-bomb. There was a towering ball of flame as high as I could see.”

The truck’s driver, George Rutherford, also survived the explosion. The police told reporters he couldn’t be interviewed because “he was in a state of shock bordering hysteria.”

1959 Press Photo Wall of an automobile agency that withstood a dynamite blast.

This wall of an automobile agency building somehow withstood the dynamite blast that crumbled most of the city’s core area. (The Oregonian)

Roseburg Oregon dynamite explosion

The aftermath of the explosion in Roseburg. (The Oregonian)

1959 Press Photo Roseburg Service Station where many were killed and injured

A block away from the crater, this was the scene at a service station, where a national guard soldier patrolled. (The Oregonian)

The then-12-year-old Kennerly, who a dozen years later would win a Pulitzer Prize for a portfolio that included images from the Vietnam War, said he “escaped [the Roseburg explosion] unharmed, and it proved to be good training for my later career!”

He added of the tragedy in his hometown:

“It looked like nuclear detonation. … Fourteen people died in the disaster. The recent explosion in Beirut was caused by the same substance, 2,700 tons of it. That blast was over 700 times bigger than the Roseburg event. Hard to imagine.”

— Douglas Perry



Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories.

Credit: Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here