Texas City Explosion of 1947

April 15 through April 17 are the calendar days associated with the filing deadline for federal income taxes.  In Texas, they are also known for being the days that surround the anniversary of the Texas City Explosion.

On April 16, 1947, the French-owned ship known as the SS Grandcamp was being loaded with 100 pound paper bags of ammonium nitrate, the active chemical used in fertilizer.  Ammonium nitrate is found in nature, but most of the compound currently available is produced by chemical processes.  It is widely used in fertilizer, mining and also in commercial, military and other industrial explosive applications.  The United States government began to use it as an explosive by World War I and the commercial use as a fertilizer became more common after World War II, despite its well known explosive properties.

The Grandcamp was actually constructed in the United States and was originally launched as the SS Benjamin R. Curtis as one of the former so-called Liberty ships, mass produced transports constructed for the war effort in World War II.  It had been donated to France as part of United States post war relief to the Allies.  The Grandcamp was lying in the north slip of the dock.  Two other ships were lying in the main slip of the dock, also in the process of being loaded.

Around 8:00 AM on April 16, 1947, crewmen of the Grandcamp noticed smoke in the cargo area, indicating that there was at least a small fire in the cargo hold.  About 2,300 tons of chemical had already been loaded, so the crew tried to locate and extinguish the fire with fire extinguishers and a relatively small amount of water, perhaps for fear of ruining the cargo.  The cargo also was to include some small arms ammunition being shipped by the United States government, along with sisal twine, peanuts, machinery and cotton.  The ammunition was thought to have been removed after the fire was discovered but before the blast occurred.


(Image credit wallscover.com)

Around 9:00 AM, the temperature in the cargo area was high enough to set off a huge explosion.  The Grandcamp was destroyed and the resulting fire spread to the nearby Monsanto and Union Carbide chemical plants. The resulting mushroom shaped cloud from the explosion reached 2,000 feet in the air and caused two aircraft flying nearby to be destroyed.  Other adjacent ships were damaged including the SS High Flyer, being loaded with sulfur and ammonium nitrate.  The High Flyer and another ship eventually caught fire as well.  Two people were killed in the fire on the High Flyer.

The initial explosion was intense.  A three thousand pound anchor from the Grandcamp was eventually found a mile and a half to two miles away.  The explosion broke windows ten miles across the bay in Galveston.  It was felt 150 miles away in Louisiana and registered on seismograph devices as far away as Denver, Colorado.

Initial estimates of the dead were thought to exceed 700, before the wounded began to be identified, reducing the number of suspected dead.  The official toll was 581 having died from the explosion and an estimated three to four thousand more were injured either from fires or shrapnel.  Due to the power of the blast, most of the injuries were characterized as being considered serious.  Along with the High Flyer crew and dock workers, the dead included twenty-eight individuals from the Texas City fire department, also destroying its fire fighting equipment and further complicating the process.  Included in the number of casualties were 234 of Monsanto’s 574 workers.  The High Flyer was moved against the side of the slip by the initial blast and debris wedged it against the Wilson B. Keene whose cargo was flour.  Four tugboats manned by brave volunteers attempted unsuccessfully to move the High Flyer further away, shortly before it too became the victim of its own fire, along with the Wilson B. Keene.  The High Flyer exploded about 1:00 PM the next day.  Each of the three ships mentioned sank or were blown apart by explosions.  In addition, some 500 residences were destroyed or damaged, leaving 2,000 individuals without a home.

Safety procedures for handling ammonium nitrate were not as extensive prior to this disaster.  It has also been written that the crew and first responders may have tried to cut off oxygen hold to the to help contain the initial blaze, but this particular chemical compound does not require oxygen to ignite or explode.

In the days following the explosion, newspapers reported that it was the second major disaster to occur in Texas within a week and the third in the United States in the previous month.  A tornado had touched down in the Panhandle area of the state on April 9, 1947, killing about 135 individuals and 111 miners had been killed in an explosion near Centralia, Illinois on March 25, 1947.  The newspaper report added that the worst maritime disaster in the nation’s history had occurred around eighty years earlier on August 24, 1865, when the steamboat Sultana had exploded on the Mississippi River, killing 1,405 individuals, including a number of former Union prisoners who were being transported to their homes.  Loss of life from the Texas City explosion was second in Texas only to the loss of life from the Galveston hurricane and flood of 1900 and was almost double the loss of life in the New London, Texas explosion some ten years older, the victims of which were mostly children.

In the days following the tragedy, Texas newspapers carried reports of families who had lost loved ones as well as reports of families whose members had survived, some of them injured.  Many survivors lost their homes.  An estimated eighty-two percent of buildings in a twenty-four block residential area were condemned as unsafe.

Small blazes continued to smolder for a week.  The fire was finally extinguished for good after two high-pressure pump trucks arrived on loan from the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company and were immediately put to use.  The still smoldering debris was washed into the bay before the authorities could set about cleaning up the docks, harbor and bay from the disaster.

The Texas City State Relief Fund accepted contributions and contributions poured in.  One was from a New York resident.  A hand written note accompanied one such $5 contribution.  The donor had used the proceeds from the sale of waste paper to give to the relief effort and that he had intended to use the proceeds for shoes until he heard about the Texas explosion.

The Texas City disaster led to new standards for storing, hauling and shipping ammonium nitrate and further legislation and standards continued to be improved in the decades that followed.

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