History of the Texas City Disaster
On April 16, 1947 at around 8am people noticed a red glow from the ship Grandcamp which was docked in the Port of Texas City in Texas City, Texas. The Grandcamp was originally called the SS Benjamin R. Curtis, named for the American attorney and US Supreme Court Justice. It went into service in 1942 and served in World War II. After the war the ship was decommissioned. In a cold war, gesture the ship was given to the French Line, a shipping company established during 1861 as an attempt to revive the French merchant marine.
The ship’s cargo was Ammonium nitrate, a chemical frequently used as fertilizer. I spread some on my lawn this weekend actually. It is also used as an ingredient in explosives. Ammonium nitrate is a very common cargo.
About 600 feet away the High Flyer was was docked. Its cargo also consisted of ammonium nitrate. 961 tons of it. Not to mention 1,800 tons of sulfur. To make all this worse, the two ships were adjacent to a warehouse which stored more fertilizer. All of this was on its way to farmers in Europe.
At 8am the red glow from the cargo hold on the Grandcamp was noticed and they began to try to put out the fire. All attempts failed.
Just before 9am the captain ordered the hold steamed. A common method used to try to put out the fire while not damaging the cargo. The hold began to expand because of the pressure from the steam. Meanwhile, crowds began to gather at what they thought was a safe distance. They noted to each other that the water around the ship was boiling. And when water splashed up against the hull it immediately turned to steam and evaporated.
At 9:12 am the cargo detonated. Sending a massive 15 foot wave out into the ocean from the port. The blast leveled almost 100 buildings on the shore. The explosion destroyed the Monsanto Chemical Company plant on shore and it also ignited refineries and chemical tanks on the waterfront. It was a gigantic explosion, which hurled the Grandcamps anchor 1.6 miles into the city. Creating a 10 foot deep crater. The blast shored off the wings of a sightseeing plane flying overhead and launched bales of flaming twine from the Grandcamps deck into the air.
10 miles from the explosion people in Galveston, Texas were thrown to their knees from the blast and in Houston, Texas, 40 miles from the explosion windows were shattered. The blast was felt as far as Louisiana, 100 miles from the blast. The grandcamp ship did not fair well either. Most of its 6,350 tons of steel were blown into the air with its cargo. Some at supersonic speeds. All of the crew that were aboard the Grandcamp died and many of those around the ship were either blown instantly to bits or burned alive. The official death toll was 567, which is believed to be underestimated. All but one of the Texas City volunteer firefighters, who were fighting the fire survived the explosion.
The High Flyer’s cargo was set afire from the blast on the Grandcamp and after 15 hours of fighting that fire and trying to move the ship away unsuccessfully, the High Flyer also exploded. That explosion killed two more and completely demolished the SS Wilson B. Keene docked nearby. One of the High Flyer’s propellers was blown a mile inland. It is now part of a memorial park, and sits near the anchor of the Grandcamp. The propeller is cracked in several places, and one of the blades has a large piece missing from it, a mute testament to the destruction that took place that day.
This disaster is widely considered to be the worst industrial accident in US history. The estimated property damage in 1947 dollars was 100 million, which in current dollars would equate to around 1.04 billion. It is believed that there were at least 468 deaths and 5,000 injured. Around 2,000 people were left homeless.
Hundreds of lawsuits were filed in the aftermath of the disaster under the recently enacted Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). On April 13, 1950, the district court found the United States responsible for a litany of negligent acts of omission and commission by 168 named agencies and their representatives in the manufacture, packaging, and labeling of ammonium nitrate, further compounded by errors in transport, storage, loading, fire prevention, and fire suppression, all of which led to the explosions.
On June 10, 1952, the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this decision, finding that the United States maintained the right to exercise its own “discretion” in vital national matters. On June 8, 1953, the US Supreme Court upheld that decision.