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August 8, 2014
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Anatomy of the 1959 Roseburg Blast

Following is a step-by-step recounting of the events leading up to, during and after The Blast.

In the early morning of Aug. 7, 1959, an explosion-fed ball of light momentarily interrupted the warm darkness over Roseburg, as if a giant match had flared and gone out.

But not quite out.

For in the seconds that followed, the darkness slowly began to submit to new lights, much dimmer than the original flash, but more durable.

And as the eye became accustomed to their flicker, the scene came into focus.

Roseburg lay like a wounded animal, gutted. A huge, smoldering pockmark was at the center of the wound. Around it were structural stumps, scorched and twisted.

Within the perimeter of the wound, men and women moved crazily. Others sat dazed. Still others lay dead. Or dying. And everywhere, the fires.

But fires die, and wounds heal. Slowly Roseburg began to put itself back together.

The 1959 blast was the greatest disaster in Roseburg history. Nothing else even comes close.

Even the newest of Roseburg residents are likely to have heard the basic facts: A truck loaded with explosives, parked in the downtown area, blew up, killing 13 persons (a 14th died a year later from injuries received in the blast), injuring about 125 and causing more than $9 million in damage.

Old-timers, and some not so old, still like to talk about the Roseburg Blast. Some of them were there. Some only heard it or saw it. Some lost businesses.

But some lost husbands, or wives, sons and daughters. And so, even after 55 years, that horrifying night is likely to remain with us for a long time yet.

This is its anatomy:

The truck

The truck was a 1959 Ford 2 1/2-ton van, all red, with a cab and an aluminum body. The rear end of the truck was en­closed by a canvas curtain. On each side, in letters about a foot high, were the words “Pacific Powder Company.” The doors of the cab were marked similarly.

The front, the rear and the sides also were marked with hinged signs 30 inches long reading “Explosives” in letters 5 inches high.

The truck’s cargo consisted of two items. There was dynamite (40 percent gelatin), which was packaged in pasteboard boxes and loaded five or six boxes high in the forward part of the van.

The dynamite was in 80 boxes weighing 50 pounds each, a total of two tons. The boxes presumably extended the width of the truck.

And there was a blasting agent, trade-named “Car-Prill,” a mixture of prilled ammonium nitrate, ground walnut shells and diesel oil.

The blasting agent was packaged in 180 three-ply moisture-proof paper bags marked with yellow labels. Each bag weighed 50 pounds for a total of 4 1/2 tons.

Together, the dynamite and blasting agent formed a cargo of 6 1/2 tons of explosives.

The people, the pre-blast

At mid-afternoon on Aug. 6, 1959, George Rutherford of Chehalis, Wash., finished loading his red truck with explosives at the Pacific Powder Co. plant in Tenino, Wash.

According to the shipper’s invoice, 10,000 pounds of dynamite and blasting agent were to be delivered to Pacific Drilling and Blasting along the North Umpqua River near Roseburg, and 3,000 pounds of blasting agent were to be taken to Gerretsen Building & Supply in Roseburg.

Rutherford climbed into his rig and began the 290-mile run to the south. Roseburg, meanwhile, was sweltering in near-100-degree heat. But it was Thursday. The week was almost over.

Not that the weekend promised to be especially exciting. There was the usual fishing, or perhaps a trip to the cool coast. And the American Legion junior baseball team had a shot at winning the state championship playoffs. But that was about it. In a town of 12,000, there wasn’t a lot to do on weekends.

The temperature had dropped, but not much, by the time Rutherford pulled into Roseburg at 8:30 p.m.

It was too late for him to make his deliveries.

Some of the explosives, which were to have been used in the construction of logging roads, were to have been dropped off at the Gerretsen magazine about three miles outside the city limits.

So Rutherford reportedly obtained permission from someone at the Gerretsen warehouse on Pine Street between Washington and Oak avenues to park his truck on Pine Street just a few feet from the warehouse.

There it sat, like a bomb, waiting to go off.

Rutherford left the truck, walked three blocks to the old Umpqua Ho­tel and checked in.

At that moment, Dennis Tandy was at his job at Nordic Veneer, working the 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. shift.

At 17, Tandy had dropped out of high school in his junior year, mar­ried Marilyn Hays, 18, and gone to work.

The couple was expecting a baby within two months.

In a filling station near the Gerretsen warehouse, Richard Knight worked as an attendant. Knight, 20, was an enlisted man in the Air Force before receiving a hardship discharge. He lived with his mother and disabled father.

A few blocks away, Assistant Fire Chief Roy McFarland was on duty. McFarland was in charge of the Fire Department, having taken over temporarily for Chief W.E. “Dutch” Mills, who had suffered a heart attack. The evening wore on. At 11 p.m. Rutherford, aware his company had been cautioned about leaving explosives trucks unattended, left the hotel and went to check his rig.

Everything seemed OK.

At 12:30 a.m. Tandy’s shift ended.

He got into his tiny Fiat and drove to his mother-in-law’s, where he picked up his wife and headed for home. The route took him by Gerret­sen’s warehouse and as he drove by, he noticed a fire in a row of trash cans alongside the building.

Tandy pulled to a stop, jumped out and tried to put out the blaze by rolling some of the cans into the street.

He shouted to his wife to turn in an alarm.

She drove to a nearby service sta­tion and told the attendant, who called the fire department. It was 1:05 a.m.

Then she returned to Gerretsen’s, parked about 100 feet from the fire and walked toward her husband.

By now the blaze had grown. No one knows, even today, how or where the fire started. Flammable materials such as paints, lacquers, thinners and gasoline were stored in the wooden building, and some theories are that the blaze started inside and spread to the trash cans.

In any event, the size of the fire frightened Marilyn Tandy.

She called to her husband to leave. “No,” he shouted, “but you get back to the car.”

At 1:07 a.m. a fire truck manned by McFarland and fireman Lyle Wescott arrived. They hooked a hose to a fire hydrant and directed a stream of water at the mounting blaze.

The heat from the fire was intense. But incredibly, no one noticed at first that the red van truck parked about four feet away from the burning building was marked “Explosives.”

In fact, Wescott actually used the truck as a shield from the heat.

But even though he was wearing protective clothing, he found the heat unbearable and had to retreat.

As he crossed the street, he real­ized his chest was burned and the flesh was sloughing from his hands.

Police officer Merle Jensen (later Douglas County sheriff) arrived just then and took Wescott to a hospital.

Wescott was replaced on the fire hose by Knight, who had just arrived from his service station. Knight had had firefighting training in the Air Force.

Inside the red van, 6 1/2 tons of ex­plosives were being exposed to searing, blistering heat.

Outside, Tandy had taken an ax and was attempting to break into a nearby fuel truck he thought ought to be moved. From her parked car 100 feet away, Mrs. Tandy watched her husband.

Knight continued to battle the flames. Suddenly he and McFarland noticed the “Explosives” sign on the red truck.

It’s uncertain whether they turned the hose onto the truck in an effort to cool it.

And it’s uncertain who — some believe it was McFarland — yelled, “Get out of here; that truck’s going to blow!”

It was 1:14 a.m., only nine minutes after the alarm had been sounded, when the unthinkable happened: The red truck shuddered, and then turned downtown Roseburg into an anteroom to hell.

The explosion

In any explosion, the action that takes place is that the solids or liquids of the explosive material turn into gases that produce tremendous heat.

The hot gasses expand violently because they require more space than the original solids or liquids. The rate of detonation (the speed at which the explosion moves through the explosive) can be as great as four miles per second, or 3,600 miles an hour.

Compare that speed with the winds of the most powerful hurri­cane, which generally don’t exceed 200 miles an hour, to get an idea of the massive destructive force of an explosion. Although those who saw the results of the Roseburg blast may not believe it, the amount of explosives (6 1/2 tons) on the Pacific Powder truck is not considered large. Much bigger “shots,” using up to 20 tons of explosives in a single blast, are commonly used in quarry blasting, for example.

But quarry blasts are set off under controlled conditions. The force of the explosion is confined, usually by solid rock.

The Roseburg Blast, by contrast, was uncontrolled. Only buildings­ and people — stood in the way of the furious release of energy.

So even though the amount of explosives on the red truck was not considered large by professional blasting standards, the potential for widespread destruction was great.

There were, after all, enough ex­plosives on the truck to “displace,” or blow up, a chunk of solid rock two-thirds of a football field long, two-thirds of a football field wide and as high as a three-story build­ing.

Imagine you are watching a rerun of the red truck exploding, in slow motion.

The first force of any explosion is downward. So when the red truck blew up, the initial thrust was into the ground, a thrust so violent it burst through the concrete pavement and tore a crater 52 feet in diameter and 20 feet deep — a hole big enough to hold a good-sized two-story building.

The explosion then rebounded, went upward and, because it was not confined, outward.

The fireball created by the explosion as it went upward rose as high as a 30-story building.

The entire city was badly shaken by the blast. Windows were broken as far as nine miles away. Earthquake-like tremors were felt 17 miles away and a “loud thud” was heard at a distance of 30 miles.

In Elkton, 45 miles away, a resident said the “whole sky lit up like a big flash,” although he couldn’t hear the explosion.

The truck itself literally disappeared. Only two pieces of it were ever found: The front axle was blown through the air, struck once four blocks away, gouged a hole in the pavement, bounced back into the air, struck a tree, bounced back 50 feet and came to rest in front of the Greyhound bus depot; the spindle, now owned by Tony Shukle, went crashing through Long and Shukle Chapel.

But it was the outward push of the explosion that caused most of the damage.

Buildings were flattened, as if a giant hand had swatted them aside; chimneys were wrenched from houses; walls swayed, buckled and fell. Power lines snapped, crackling in the darkness.

Windows shattered, spraying glass fragments; foundations were shifted. Cars were slammed violently about. The massive rush of air carried bricks, metal fragments, glass and other debris in a deadly shotgun-like blast.

A nearby Coca-Cola bottling plant was destroyed. Bottles exploded like machine gun bursts. Tandy, McFarland and Knight were killed instantly.

The blast picked up a police patrol car containing two Roseburg patrolmen and blew it 100 feet. The patrolmen were able to walk away with minor injuries.

It lifted five railroad cars off their tracks near Southeast Pine and set them over a few feet. The tracks themselves were twisted into the air.

A gas pump weighing about 500 pounds was blown into the air near the explosion and over the top of the railroad cars, landing about 300 feet away.

Marilyn Tandy’s car was blown, right side up, about 100 feet. Its back window popped out in one piece. Other windows shattered and blew inward, their fragments peppering Marilyn. Her dress was torn from neck to waist and bobby pins were knocked out of her pin curls. Miraculously, she was not even cut.

At the William Unrath home, guests Lauretta Rusher and Lorraine Ross were awakened by the sirens shortly after 1 a.m. They looked out the window to watch the Gerretsen fire a short distance away for a few minutes. When the truck exploded, “the house seemed to fall in on us,” Rusher said. Both survived.

Unrath, who owned the bottling plant, and neighbor Martin Rusk, who lived in an apartment above the plant, were in the plant when the truck exploded. Both died.

Carol Marical was on her way home from the Umpqua Hotel, where she was being trained as a restaurant hostess. She was walking with friend Bonnie Jean Berg when they stopped to watch the Gerretsen blaze.

After a few minutes, however, they resumed their homeward stroll. Suddenly Carol heard a sizzling sound. She dropped instinctively to the pavement and curled into a ball, protecting her face.

Then the truck exploded. Carol’s dress was ripped off her and her shoes were blown away. She was knocked 150 feet down the street, but she lived. Miss Berg’s body was found inside a nearby building.

Jimmy Siles, 17, was riding around with a friend when they spotted the Gerretsen fire. They stopped to watch. The blast drove a 3-inch bolt into the base of his skull. He was in a coma for a year before he died.

Wayne Townsend lived in an apartment above an auto showroom near the Gerretsen building. He went down to move his car away from the blaze. They found his body in the rubble several days later.

The body of Rufus Wiggins Jr., a logger, also was found later in the debris; as was the body of Mrs. Rollin McDonald, a nearby resident who was walking with her husband to watch the Gerretsen fire. Her husband survived.

Bicycle store owner Alvin Kuykendall and his family also were awakened by the sirens. They watched the fire from their nearby home, and saw police officer Don DeSues work to keep the streets free of traffic.

Mrs. Kuykendall and her daughter Virginia, 3, were killed in the blast, as was DeSues.

Harry Carmichael, about 50, walked away from the blast scene with his arm blown off. He directed rescue workers to spots where people were trapped. Finally, he collapsed, was taken to a hospital and died.

Rutherford, the truck driver, heard the commotion from his Umpqua Hotel room and was on his way to the fire when the truck exploded.

Dazed and bleeding, he had to be restrained from going to the scene. “Let me go. Let me go. I’ve got to go back to see how many people I’ve killed,” he said.

The explosion took about a split second. The final toll would be 14 killed, about 125 injured, about 350 buildings damaged. Twelve homes were demolished; 175 businesses were damaged, including 35 “major” business houses and 140 “minor” ones. Six hotels were so severely damaged they were closed, as were four apartment houses.

Damage totaling more than $9 million was spread over a 50-block area. Most of the buildings in the 12-block area around the explosion center were destroyed.

But the night was not over. Heat and flying brands from the explosion set off fires in a seven-block area. The anteroom glowed.

The fire

At its height, the fire set off by the Roseburg Blast involved about 45 buildings, many of which were gutted or suffered severe damage.

And, in a night of heroics, a young fire lieutenant may have emerged the biggest hero of all.

Donald H. Starmer, who hours before had been third in command in the Roseburg Fire Department, suddenly found the responsibility of leadership squarely on his shoulders.

Chief Mills was incapacitated by a heart attack. Assistant Chief McFarland had been killed by the explosion. It was up to Starmer to contain the fires in one of the state’s worst disasters.

Starmer’s first action was to call for more help. Assistance eventually came from Sutherlin, Myrtle Creek, Fire District 2, the Veterans Administration Fire Department, Eugene, Springfield, Winston-Dillard, North Bend, Coos Bay and Cottage Grove.

Meanwhile, Starmer’s crew laid out 1,000 feet of hose with four nozzles. After a momentary calm, the area they were in was suddenly enveloped in fire and the men barely escaped with their apparatus. The hose lines and nozzles were abandoned.

Shortly before 2 a.m. Starmer gave the order to hold the fire line at Southeast Stephens Street on the east and Cass Avenue on the south.

With this order he committed every available piece of equipment Roseburg and assisting units had.

That left the rest of the city un­protected and, had the blaze broken out of the pocket Starmer created, it probably would have swept through other sections of town.

But Starmer’s plan worked. The line held. The fire was brought un­der control in two hours.

Finally, the night ended. The Roseburg Blast was history.

The sun rose on a broken city. A reporter walked through the smok­ing wreckage, past a bookstore in which the windows had been shattered and every book, except one that had been on display on a shelf in the front window, had been hurled to the floor.

The lone book, standing in silent benediction over the rubble, was the Bible.

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The News-Review Updated Aug 11, 2015 11:01AM Published Aug 8, 2014 11:26AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.