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61 Years Ago, Ammonium Nitrate Blew Up Roseburg, Oregon. David Kennerly Was There. 

"All I know is one hell of a boom," he recalls.

WW presents "Distant Voices," a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they're doing during quarantine.

On Aug. 4, the world watched Beirut's waterfront leveled by a massive explosion. The blast, which killed at least 100 people and injured thousands more, looked like a nuclear detonation. In fact, it was ammonium nitrate—an extremely unstable additive to fertilizer.

Oregon had its own ammonium nitrate disaster. In 1959, a truck filled with 4 tons of the substance (and a couple tons of dynamite) was parked next to a building that caught fire in the town of Roseburg. It obliterated most of downtown. Fourteen people died.

David Kennerly watched it happen. He was 12 years old and staring at the fire 10 blocks away from his French windows at 2 am. The blast blew him across the room. He remembers fire falling from the sky.

"All I know is, one hell of a boom," he recalls. "It also blew up my junior high school. Unfortunately, I wasn't taking pictures then."

Kennelly, now 73, went on to capture plenty of other vivid images. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who has taken portraits of U.S. presidents from Gerald Ford to Donald Trump. Readers may remember his work from the Oregon Journal, The Oregonian, Life and Newsweek—or they just saw a viral tweet of Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush.

From his home in Los Angeles, Kennerly discussed his career (including why Trump is easy to photograph) and recounted the night Roseburg blew up.

The 61st anniversary of that blast, by the way, is this Friday, Aug. 7.

See more Distant Voices interviews here.