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Special Report: 60 years after the Roseburg Blast

The explosion killed 14 and injured more than 120 others.

Posted: Aug 7, 2019 7:17 PM
Updated: May 3, 2021 12:18 PM

ROSEBURG, Ore. -- Roseburg is a bustling city with a charming downtown, but looking at it now, you'd never know Roseburg suffered a dark and deadly night. 

“It looked like a war zone,” said Lyle Wescott said, who was one of the firefighters who responded the night of the Roseburg Blast.

The explosion killed 14 and injured more than 120 others. It leveled eight blocks downtown, and hundreds of buildings were damaged.

“I thought a bomb had been dropped, really it was that bad,” Wescott said.

In the early morning of Aug. 7, 1959, a fire broke out at a downtown building supply store near the intersection of Oak and Pine streets.

“Just another fire at the Gerretsen Building Supply,” Wescott said. “I had no idea there was this truck parked down there that had all this danger on it.”

That danger was about two tons of dynamite and over four tons of ammonium nitrate, which is an explosive material often found in fertilizers. 

“You didn’t know it was a powder truck until it was too late,” said retired officer Sam Gosso. Gosso was a sergeant with the Roseburg Police Department and was on patrol that night. “But it wasn’t even supposed to be there.”

The fire from the building raged on and eventually spread to the truck, and the result was catastrophic.

Gosso was helping fight the blaze when someone yelled out it was a powder truck. In a split moment, Gosso rushed to move his patrol car.

"It moved it, me, car, all. It kind of knocked me out. When I woke up, the car was on fire, so I got out of it and I got away from it,” Gosso said. "It scared the hell out of me when I woke up and everything was on fire. People laying all around there were dead, hurt and whatnot. I was just at a blank, so to speak."

Amazingly, Gosso was able to jump back into action, blocking off traffic and doing what he could.

On the other hand, Wescott was severely burned while fighting the structure fire and was taken to the hospital moments before the blast.

"We were on the old bridge and everything blew,” Wescott said. “It just picked the whole car up and set it down again."

He was in the hospital for 29 days.

"I could see fire outside of the hospital," Wescott said.

If you look around Roseburg now, 60 years later, everything’s changed. All that’s left of the tragedy is a stone marking where it happened. But for some who experienced it firsthand, the scars of that night are far more lasting.

“I get lumps in my throat talking about it,” Wescott said.

And while his physical scars are visible for the world to see, it’s the memories that still hurt.

“I think what sticks in my mind the most is the two people I really worked with that got killed. I think about them a lot,” he said. “I’d like them to be remembered as good people.”

Gosso also remembers those who died in the blast.

“I just wonder how I made it when some of the other people didn’t. I was just as close to it as some of those were. In fact I was a lot closer, but I made it. I don’t’ know how. Just lucky I guess,’ he said.

Tom and Connie Dodge were just teens at the time of the Blast. Their school was destroyed.

“It was like a sonic boom kind of blast,” Tom said.

Connie said glass was all over.

“Just total destruction,” she said. “It looked like it would never be the same.”

The community was left reeling.

"It wasn't just the devastation of the land. It was the devastation of people and their lives," Connie said. “The 19-year-old that was killed was the son of a lady my mom worked with. I remember going to that funeral, and it was the saddest thing I had been to because it was a young person and all his friends were there. That had a real big impact. You multiply the impact to all the other funerals and it was sad. Horribly sad."

But all wasn’t lost.

“So much of the area was devastated, there was a lot of construction, everything got rebuilt. It revitalized that part of town," Tom said.

The community worked together to pick up one piece at a time.

“Everybody was helping everybody,” Tom said.

After the Blast, traffic routes were changed through the city, and lawmakers created more regulations on transporting explosives.

“It’s important to remember,” Connie said.

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