When dynamite truck blew up, it looked like nuclear war
A truck driver parked 13,000 pounds of explosives next to the hardware store downtown. That night the hardware store caught fire … and so did the dynamite, in the biggest human-caused disaster in Oregon history.
Ground Zero in “The Blast” was this crater, 20 feet deep and roughly 60
feet across, where the truck full of dynamite was parked. [Larger image:
1200px wide] (Photo: Oregon Historical Society)
By Finn J.D. John — February 20, 2011
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in the cockpit of the Frontier Airlines passenger liner, flying along at 17,000 feet in the middle of the night, when the pilot saw the mushroom cloud rising over an Oregon city.
The year was 1959. All over the country, children were “ducking and covering” to prepare for the nuclear war that everyone knew was a real possibility. Only two years earlier, the Soviet Union had sent Sputnik I into orbit, demonstrating that they could drop a nuclear warhead pretty much anywhere they liked, the same as we could.
Quite why the Kremlin would have picked Roseburg, Oregon, as a target would have been unclear. But with a glowing, fiery ball of evidence rising slowly into the air above that little Douglas County city, the pilots can be excused for not asking the question before radioing the Medford Airport control tower that global thermonuclear war was breaking out, with Roseburg at Ground Zero, an hour and 14 minutes after midnight on August 7.
This vintage postcard shows the Umpqua Hotel, in which truck driver
George Rutherford slept the night his truck exploded; it was just a few
blocks from the scene of the blast. [Larger image: 1200px wide]
Six and a half tons of high explosives
Luckily for most of us, they were wrong. What they were witnessing was not nuclear war, but the biggest human-caused disaster in Oregon history – something still referred to in Douglas County knowingly and with a slight touch of reverence as “The Blast.”
The Blast involved six and a half tons of explosives – 13 times the amount used in the state highway department’s ill-starred attempt to blow a dead whale off the beach in Florence 11 years later. It left a crater 60 feet wide and 20 feet deep, leveled all the buildings for blocks around and took the glass out of windows nine miles away. And it killed 13 people – a number that seems miraculously small considering the scale of the destruction.
Here’s how it happened:
13,000 pounds of dynamite roll into town
George Rutherford, a truck driver for a Washington company called Pacific Powder Co., was making a delivery to Gerretsen Building Supply in downtown Roseburg. But he got there after the business had closed for the day. So he parked his truck next to Gerretsen’s and walked three blocks to the Umpqua Hotel, where he checked in for the night.
Inside the truck were two tons of dynamite and four and a half tons of blasting powder. A few feet away from it was a building that, a few hours later, would be completely engulfed in fire.
No one knows how the Gerretsen fire got started; all the evidence is, shall we say, gone. It might have been a pile of oily rags bursting spontaneously into flame; it might have been a hobo’s jungle fire by the railroad tracks; it might even have been an employee’s cigarette left in the wrong place hours before. What everyone does know is what happened when the flames got into the barrels of paint thinner, kerosene and other flammable spirits kept in Gerretsen’s warehouse. The fire got very big and very smoky, very fast.
A huge, toxic fire, right downtown: Could it get any worse? …
This vintage postcard shows the old Roseburg Junior High School, which
was ruined in the blast. The shock brought tons of plaster crashing down
from the ceilings onto the empty desks in the school; if those desks had
been occupied by students, many of them would likely have died. The
school had to be demolished after the blast. [Larger image: 1200px wide]
The alarm was sounded at around 1 a.m., when a young mill worker named Dennis Tandy, driving home with his pregnant wife in their tiny air-cooled Fiat, noticed the fire. After calling the fire department, Dennis stayed to help. Marilyn, his wife, stayed in the car about a block away. A quarter-hour later she would suddenly become a widow, and the tiny, flimsy-looking Fiat 600 would save her life.
Firefighters were on the scene within two minutes and, with Tandy’s help, started battling to suppress the fire in Gerretsen’s. Fueled by paint products, the smoke was thick and poisonous – and pouring past Rutherford’s truck, obscuring the placards on its flanks that read, “EXPLOSIVES.”
Minutes ticked by. The sides of the truck started to buckle and warp. Then the truck was on fire. Then –
… Yes, it could.
When the blast hit George Rutherford, he was racing from his hotel to his truck. Awakened by the sirens, he’d been desperately trying to get to his rig before it was too late – and then, all at once, it was too late. The explosion blew him back toward the hotel and took off a piece of his nose. Bystanders had to restrain him to keep him from running into the inferno. “Let me go,” he kept saying. “I’ve got to go see how many people I’ve killed.”
Casualties included many firefighters
Several firefighters on the scene were literally blown apart; the mayor of Roseburg a little later picked up a firefighter’s glove and found a hand inside it. Several people nearby were killed by broken glass – a woman and her daughter slain by the picture window through which they’d been watching the fire, and another woman picked up by the blast and thrown into the window of a car dealership. One unlucky young man had a bolt from Rutherford’s truck bury itself in the back of the head; he died a month later.
Others survived with various injuries; a total of 125 were hurt.
The recovery: Neighbors help neighbors
In the wake of The Blast, Roseburg residents came together to help each other get through. Lumber-company trucks came downtown and handed out sheets of plywood so people could board up their blown-out windows. Shopkeepers labored for days picking up debris and sweeping up glass.
Powder company: “Don’t blame us!”
Rutherford’s company tried, in a very clumsy sort of way, to throw him under the bus, but these efforts only drew attention to the fact that they had ordered Rutherford to leave the truck in town for the night. There was a perfectly serviceable explosives depot outside town, but apparently company officials were worried someone would steal the dynamite if it were left parked there, so they had actually told him not to use it.
Perhaps in response to Pacific Powder Co.’s thumbfingered effort at blame-shifting, the Douglas County District Attorney filed an indictment for manslaughter against the company, but did not file any charges against Rutherford himself.
Eventually the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that a company couldn’t be prosecuted for manslaughter, and nothing came of this. But Pacific Powder could, and did, get sued by a great many people, as did Rutherford. The company, in the end, paid a little over $1 million in damages.
A shadow on the driver’s life
The incident – as can well be imagined – cast a shadow over Rutherford that stayed with him the rest of his life. He died in 1996.
Within a few years, insurance payments and other assistance had financed a rebuilding of downtown Roseburg. Other than a few plaques around town, a visitor today would never know anything like this had happened.
Still, The Blast cast a long shadow. “Years later, when I was in the service, guys would ask me where I was from,” historian and Douglas County native Dale Greenley recalls. “When I’d say ‘Roseburg, Oregon,’ ninety percent of the guys would look at me and say, ‘The Blast!’”
(Sources: Serafin, Barry & al. Roseburg Blast: A Catastrophe and its Heroes. Medford: Southern Oregon Public Television, 2004; Walth, Brent. “The Blast that Ripped Apart Roseburg, Ore., and the Man who was Held Responsible,” The Oregonian, Aug. 29, 2009)
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