Sometimes painful history lessons aren’t learned. Sometimes they are simply ignored. Either way, the disastrous explosion that devastated Texas City in April 1947 could still have been avoided. The deadly properties of ammonium nitrate were well known, but Federal regulations were lax in regard to almost every aspect of dealing with the potentially volatile compound.
Some did learn – Houston did not permit loading of ammonium nitrate, though nearby Port Texas was not so scrupulous. There, the French-registered SS Grandcamp was packed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer when fire broke out in the engine room, quickly spreading to the cargo hold. A crowd gathered on shore to watch the drama at what was presumed to be a safe distance. It wasn’t. The crew attempted to put out the fire by using live steam, a method more likely to preserve the cargo than the use of water. But the consequent heat only succeeded in causing the ammonium nitrate to reach its explosive threshold.
A massive blast ripped through the port and sent a tsunami surging along the Texas coastline. Most ships in harbor were sunk, while the SS High Flyer with its own cargo of ammonium nitrate was set ablaze (it would explode 15 hours later, adding to the initial disaster). The entire volunteer Texas City Fire Department was wiped out, over 1,000 buildings were flattened and a couple of low-flying aircraft were incinerated. A chain reaction set waterfront refineries ablaze and ignited various chemical plants and explosives facilities, while blazing debris rained down over a wide area.
It took a week to put out fires and a month to recover all the bodies. America’s worst-ever industrial disaster claimed nearly 600 lives and caused devastating property damage, later estimated at $100 million – an awesome sum in 1947.
When: April 16 1947
Where: Texas City, Galveston County, Texas, USA
Death toll: Officially 581 (405 identified, 63 unidentified, 113 missing) – but the force of the explosion and fierceness of subsequent fires probably killed and incinerated many more who were not missed. Of more than 5,000 reported injured, nearly 1,800 required serious hospital treatment.
You should know: They love them in America – but the class-action lawsuit only appeared on the legal map in 1948 following an Act of Congress, thus enabling victims of the Texas City disaster to participate in the very first collective action against the US government, it eventually failed after a contentious Supreme Court decision.