When I heard about the gunman who killed and injured students at Umpqua Community College on Thursday, I recalled another incident that occurred 56 years ago in Roseburg that claimed the lives of 14 people and injured countless more.
I received the telephone call at 2 a.m. on August 7, 1959, from a state police officer stationed in Eugene where I was the police/fire beat reporter for “The Eugene Register-Guard.”
“We’re ferrying blood to Roseburg,” he said. “I don’t know why, but you may want to check it out.”
Minutes later I was one of two reporters and a photographer who drove the 71 miles south to be greeted by mobs of people being herded back from the scene of an explosion by National Guard troops.
We learned that a truck loaded with two tons of dynamite and four and one-half tons of ammonium nitrate parked near a building supply company had caught fire and exploded.
The blast leveled eight city blocks and created a crater 53 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. Three hundred businesses within a 30-block radius were damaged by what became known as “The Blast.”
As I thought about the two Roseburg tragedies, I marveled at how technology has changed the delivery of information and images to viewing and listening publics.
By mid-morning on that fateful day in 1959, I shared my notes with another “Register-Guard” reporter who volunteered to return to Eugene to write the story before the press started shortly after noon. We also needed to transport film taken by our photographer so that it could be developed and printed. He and I were to remain at “The Blast” scene to report follow-up stories.
The community college story was being reported immediately by students to texted and tweeted information to parents and to others. Photographs were transmitted instantaneously. The world knew about the incident minutes later.
Despite the rapid transmission of information and images, I knew the challenges faced this week in Roseburg by journalists who walked into the middle of heartbreak, fear, shock and sadness and talked with survivors and officials in an effort to tell the story.
The names of four reporters and two photographers appeared with stories and images that appeared in” The Register-Guard” the day after the community college incident. Related local stories were written by other reporters. An editorial also commented on the incident.
As journalists, we are often criticized for being the “bearers of bad tidings,” which reminds me of a 1987 conversation with a reporter who covered religion and social issues for “The Los Angeles Times.” I was teaching journalism at Biola University, a Christian college, where the reporter was a guest speaker.
“For God’s sake, what are you doing in the sordid business of journalism?” I asked the former pastor.
“I’m reporting what’s going on in God’s world,” was his immediate reply. “Haven’t you read the Bible?”
He’s correct, of course. As journalists, we are called to report what’s going on in this world, and it’s often bad tidings. As journalists, that’s our calling. That’s what we do.