The year was 1959: Oregon celebrated its Centennial, the United States was in the midst of the Cold War, and people didn't go to Dutch Bros. or Starbucks for a Hazelnut Macchiato, they went to a café for a cup of coffee.
George Rutherford pulled into Roseburg, Oregon around 8:30 pm on a typical hot August night. It was too late to make his two deliveries outside of town. He decided to park the new 2-1/2 ton red Ford delivery truck he was driving on Pine Street, just a few feet from Gerretsen's Builder's Supply, an act which would prove disastrous for downtown Roseburg and many of its citizens. The truck contained 6.5 tons of explosives from the Pacific Powder Company of Tenino, Washington.
There were some conflicting initial newspaper reports that he parked the truck and went for coffee, but the consensus seems to be that he parked it at Gerretsen's overnight, planning to make his first delivery of 3,000 pounds of Car-Prill, an ammonium-nitrate blasting agent, to their powder magazine the following morning and then deliver the remaining 6,000 pounds of Car-Prill and 4,000 pounds of dynamite to the Pacific Drilling and Blasting Company at a site near the North Umpqua River, for use in blasting out logging roads. Mr. Rutherford walked three blocks up Oak Street to the Umpqua Hotel where he got a meal and a room for the night. According to testimony he would later provide during an Interstate Commerce Commission investigation, Rutherford said he'd been given permission from someone at Gerretson's to park the truck beside the building overnight, but was unable to provide the employee's name. He also said the person told him a merchant policeman would check the truck hourly.
Rutherford would also testify that he didn't park the truck three miles outside of town at the Gerretsen's Powder Magazine because his supervisors told him not to. They were worried about thefts if the truck was left at that location. It is unclear why they weren't worried about a large red truck displaying "Explosives" placards on the front, rear and sides in 5-inch letters and having only a canvas curtain to cover the back being a target of thefts when left unattended on a downtown street overnight.
According to Rutherford everything appeared fine when he checked on the truck around 11:00 pm, but in what can be regarded as a horrific coincidence, at just after 1:00 am in the morning of August 7, 1959—less than five hours after the truck and explosives were parked—a young millworker and his bride of 8 months spotted a fire at Gerretsen's Building Company. Dennis Napper Tandy told his pregnant wife Marilyn to go to a service station nearby and phone the fire department while he tried to stop the fire.
Fire trucks responded within minutes and began fighting the fire, which had been growing rapidly in the wood-framed portion of Gerretsen's building, probably due to the amount of highly combustible materials such as paint thinner and lacquer stored there. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the smoke pouring out of the building, it was several minutes before the firemen noticed that the nearby truck was marked "explosives." The radiant heat was intense and flames from the building were touching the truck, parked only four feet from the building. According to one eyewitness account, the truck's sides had begun to bulge and smoke was pouring from the vehicle. Someone shouted for everyone to get away, but it was too late. At 1:15 am, only 10 minutes after the alarm had been sounded, the truck exploded with a deafening roar, leveling 8 square blocks, devastating another 22 blocks, blasting a crater 50 feet across and 20 feet deep, killing 14 people and injuring another 125.
Many who saw the explosion said it looked like an atomic blast. Western Airline pilots flying 17,000 feet above the explosion radioed the Medford Airport to report that a nuclear bomb may have been detonated in Roseburg. The explosion sent 55-gallon drums, chunks of concrete and burning debris into the air, causing many additional fires in the area. One of the Pacific Powder truck's axles landed 3-1/2 blocks away. Eyewitness Dave Cordon, who was the news editor at Roseburg's KRXL radio station, said "I got up on top of a building where I could see the fire. It looked like a big inferno. Smoke was heavy and burning particles were going through the air and landing all around. There were hot wires lying all over the place."
While the explosion and fires were devastating, the potential for a total catastrophe lurked about 400 feet away from the blast site: Roseburg's Liquefied Petroleum Gas plant with seven storage tanks containing 166,000 gallons of highly flammable fuel. Fortunately none of the metal tanks had been pierced by flying debris from the explosion. Additional fire engines from the surrounding area as well as from Eugene and Coos Bay had been summoned to help and further disaster was averted. Although the buildings on three sides of the plant burned completely, two fire companies cooled the storage tanks with streams of water, preventing a pressure build-up which would have caused the valves to release flammable gas into the inferno. At the nearby train depot, the outer shell of one rail tank containing LPG was damaged but luckily the inner wall wasn't punctured, so no gas escaped.
Newspaper stories relate how the fire sirens awakened George Rutherford from his slumber at the Umpqua Hotel three blocks away from the fire. Some reports say he raced towards the fire to move the truck and was somewhere between a half-block and one block away when the blast occurred. The Associated Press (AP) article run by many newspapers stated "The driver, George Rutherford, Chehalis, Wash., said he was walking toward the truck and was knocked down by the blast. He was hospitalized, with injuries believed not critical." The AP article also included information from Gerald Butler, Eugene Insurance Salesman, who had been watching the fire from his third floor room at the same Umpqua Hotel George Rutherford was staying at. The blast threw Mr. Butler clear through his hotel door into the hallway. Mr. Butler told the reporter that many of the hotel's guests were panicked and confused, and that after he helped one hysterical patron down the stairs and onto the street in front of the hotel: "I got out on the street and saw the two girls trying to force a man into a taxicab to take him to a hospital. He was the driver of the truck." "He was crying, 'Let me go. Let me go. I've got to go down there and see how many people I've killed.' Then I helped the two girls get him into the cab and take him to a hospital."
What caused the fire which ultimately led to the explosion? None of the reports viewed the events as anything other than a tragic accident. Some articles said the fire started in some trash cans near the Gerretsen's Building Supply warehouse. Several sources theorized that transients or hobos from the nearby rail station may have started a fire in the cans to keep warm, however that seems unlikely since the daily temperature in Roseburg had been around 100°F, and according to the U.S. Weather Bureau was only down to 70° F. by 1:00 am. Other sources mentioned the possibility that the fire could have been started by a lit cigarette carelessly thrown into the trash. Perhaps it is a sign of a simpler time that there was no mention of even the likelihood of the fire being deliberately set.
Whatever the cause of the fire, it changed the face of Roseburg forever. Property damages totaled about $12,000,000—almost $93 million in 2012 dollars. Many businesses were rebuilt or repaired, however only 80% of the damages were covered by insurance.
The Douglas County District Attorney filed charges of manslaughter against the Pacific Powder Company, however the Oregon Supreme Court made a ruling that a company could not be charged with the crime. The D.A. did not charge Mr. Rutherford.
Civil lawsuits against both Pacific Powder and George Rutherford were settled in 1962. The company paid about $1.2 million.
The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) investigation laid blame on both the Pacific Powder company and George Rutherford for parking the truck unattended in a congested area. The Blast led the ICC to enact and enforce stricter laws on the transportation and storage of explosives.
Dennis Tandy (his wife would give birth to their son, Dennis Jr, on October 27th)
Roy McFarland, Assistant Fire Chief
Richard Knight, Volunteer Fire Fighter
William Unrath, Volunteer Fire Fighter and co-owner of the nearby bottling plant which was destroyed in the blast
Donald DeSues, Police Officer
Virginia Lee Kuykendall
Bonnie Jean Berg
James Siles (The last to die. He was in a coma for months and died in 1960)
(Sadly, I have been unable to determine the names of the other two casualties)
On a personal note: When the blast occurred my family was visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Canyonville, 25 miles south of Roseburg. Unaware of the explosion, my Aunt left a little after 5:00 am for her job at the Harris Café on Sheridan Street across from the Train Depot and just a couple blocks from the blast site. A policeman stopped her at a roadblock and asked where she was going. When she told him she was going to work at the Café, for some reason he let her through. She remembers how eerie the drive became passing through greater and greater devastation and even seeing body parts on the roadway. She quickly realized there would be no business at Harris Café that day, so turned around and came back home.
- National Board of Fire Underwriters and the Oregon Insurance Rating Bureau: Roseburg, Oregon Fire, Explosion and Conflagration
- Brent Walth, The Oregonian: The blast that ripped apart Roseburg, Oregon, and the psyche of a man who was held responsible
- Finn J.D. John, Offbeat Oregon History: When dynamite truck blew up in Roseburg, it looked like nuclear war
- Southern Oregon Public Television Video, narrated by Barry Serafin: Roseburg Blast: A Catastrophe and Its Heroes
- KDRV Television Story and Video by Ron Brown: Oregon Trails: Explosion in Roseburg
- Douglas County Chronicles, History from the Land of 100 Valleys, by R. J. Guyer (pages 123 - 125): The Roseburg Blast: A Survivor's Journey
- Associated Press and United Press International Stories, posted by Stu Beitler on GenDiasters Website: Roseburg, OR Explosion, 1959
- Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California
- Montana Standard, Butte, Montana
- The Daily Chronicle, Centralia, Washington
- Nevada State Journal, Reno, Nevada
- Reno Evening Gazette, Reno, Nevada
- Aunt Peggy