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Wed Aug 5, 2020, 08:02 AM

Ammonium nitrate and other explosions at maritime terminals in history:

I thought about the obvious title -- "blasts from the past" -- but there are casualties.

This was 2,200 tons:

Tue Apr 16, 2019: 72 Years Ago Today; The Texas City Disaster

The Texas City disaster was an industrial accident that occurred April 16, 1947 in the Port of Texas City, Texas. It was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, and one of history's largest non-nuclear explosions. Originating with a mid-morning fire on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the port), her cargo of approximately 2,200 tons (approximately 2,100 metric tons) of ammonium: nitrate detonated, initiating a subsequent chain-reaction of additional fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities. It killed at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department. The disaster triggered the first ever class action lawsuit against the United States government, under the then-recently enacted Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), on behalf of 8,485 victims.

This involved munitions:

Tue Dec 5, 2017: The Halifax Explosion, December 6, 1917, One Hundred Years Ago Today

Halifax Explosion

The Halifax Explosion was a maritime disaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on the morning of 6 December 1917. SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship laden with high explosives, collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo in the Narrows, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin. A fire on board the French ship ignited her cargo, causing a large explosion that devastated the Richmond district of Halifax. Approximately 2,000 people were killed by the blast, debris, fires or collapsed buildings, and an estimated 9,000 others were injured. The blast was the largest man-made explosion before the development of nuclear weapons, releasing the equivalent energy of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT (12,000 GJ).

Mont-Blanc was under orders from the French government to carry her cargo of high explosives from New York via Halifax to Bordeaux, France. At roughly 8:45 am, she collided at low speed, approximately one knot (1.2 mph or 1.9 km/h), with the unladen Imo, chartered by the Commission for Relief in Belgium to pick up a cargo of relief supplies in New York. The resulting fire on board the French ship quickly grew out of control. Approximately 20 minutes later at 9:04:35 am, the Mont-Blanc exploded.


At 9:04:35 am (almost 20 minutes after the collision), the out-of-control fire on board Mont-Blanc set off her highly explosive cargo. The ship was completely blown apart and a powerful blast wave radiated away from the explosion at more than 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) per second. Temperatures of 5,000 °C (9,000 °F) and pressures of thousands of atmospheres accompanied the moment of detonation at the centre of the explosion. White-hot shards of iron fell down upon Halifax and Dartmouth. Mont-Blanc's forward 90 mm gun, its barrel melted away, landed approximately 5.6 kilometres (3.5 mi) north of the explosion site near Albro Lake in Dartmouth, while the shank of her anchor, weighing half a ton, landed 3.2 kilometres (2.0 mi) south at Armdale.

A cloud of white smoke rose to over 3,600 metres (11,800 ft). The shock wave from the blast travelled through the earth at nearly 23 times the speed of sound and was felt as far away as Cape Breton (207 kilometres or 129 miles) and Prince Edward Island (180 kilometres or 110 miles). An area of over 160 hectares (400 acres) was completely destroyed by the explosion, while the harbour floor was momentarily exposed by the volume of water that vaporized. A tsunami was formed by water surging in to fill the void; it rose as high as 18 metres (60 ft) above the high-water mark on the Halifax side of the harbour. Imo was carried onto the shore at Dartmouth by the tsunami. The blast killed all but one on the whaler, everyone on the pinnace and 21 of the 26 men on Stella Maris; she ended up on the Dartmouth shore, severely damaged. The captain's son, First Mate Walter Brannen, who had been thrown into the hold by the blast, survived, as did four others. All but one of the Mont-Blanc crew members survived.

Over 1,600 people were killed instantly and 9,000 were injured, more than 300 of whom later died. Every building within a 2.6-kilometre (1.6 mi) radius, over 12,000 in total, was destroyed or badly damaged. Hundreds of people who had been watching the fire from their homes were blinded when the blast wave shattered the windows in front of them. Stoves and lamps overturned by the force of the blast sparked fires throughout Halifax, particularly in the North End, where entire city blocks were caught up in the inferno, trapping residents inside their houses. Firefighter Billy Wells, who was thrown away from the explosion and had his clothes torn from his body, described the devastation survivors faced: "The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires." He was the only member of the eight-man crew of the fire engine Patricia to survive.

The death toll could have been worse had it not been for the self-sacrifice of an Intercolonial Railway dispatcher, Patrick Vincent (Vince) Coleman, operating at the railyard about 750 feet (230 m) from Pier 6, where the explosion occurred. He and his co-worker, William Lovett, learned of the dangerous cargo aboard the burning Mont-Blanc from a sailor and began to flee. Coleman remembered, however, that an incoming passenger train from Saint John, New Brunswick, was due to arrive at the railyard within minutes. He returned to his post alone and continued to send out urgent telegraph messages to stop the train. Several variations of the message have been reported, among them this from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic: "Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys." Coleman's message was responsible for bringing all incoming trains around Halifax to a halt. It was heard by other stations all along the Intercolonial Railway, helping railway officials to respond immediately. Passenger Train No. 10, the overnight train from Saint John, is believed to have heeded the warning and stopped a safe distance from the blast at Rockingham, saving the lives of about 300 railway passengers. Coleman was killed at his post as the explosion ripped through the city. He was honoured with a Heritage Minute in the 1990s and inducted into the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame in 2004.


In 1918, Halifax sent a Christmas tree to the City of Boston in thanks and remembrance for the help that the Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee provided immediately after the disaster. That gift was revived in 1971 by the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association, which began an annual donation of a large tree to promote Christmas tree exports as well as acknowledge Boston's support after the explosion. The gift was later taken over by the Nova Scotia Government to continue the goodwill gesture as well as to promote trade and tourism. The tree is Boston's official Christmas tree and is lit on Boston Common throughout the holiday season. In deference to its symbolic importance for both cities, the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources has specific guidelines for selecting the tree.

This wasn't a maritime incident, but it involved ammonium nitrate:

Wed Apr 17, 2013: Explosion Rocks Fertilizer Plant During Fire

The Oklahoma City bombing happened before DU.

I was upset to hear ammonium nitrate described as a material used to make bombs in a radio news broadcast this morning. Well, yes, but its major use is as a fertilizer.

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Reply Ammonium nitrate and other explosions at maritime terminals in history: (Original post)
mahatmakanejeeves Aug 5 OP
obamanut2012 Aug 5 #1
oasis Aug 5 #2
eppur_se_muova Aug 5 #3
csziggy Aug 5 #4
mahatmakanejeeves Aug 6 #5

Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 08:03 AM

1. The Texas City incident is exactly what I thought of last night

I still think any business that makes anything really explosive should be located in the middle of nowhere.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 08:16 AM

2. Scary as hell.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 09:42 AM

3. Book recs: "City on Fire" and "Curse of the Narrows"

Unfortunately, the former title has been used many times for fictional works. Look for Bill Munataglio as author.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 10:02 AM

4. July 17, 1944 - the Port Chicago, California, Disaster

The Liberty ship SS E. A. Bryan docked at the inboard, landward side of Port Chicago's single 1,500 ft (460 m) pier at 8:15 a.m. on July 13, 1944. The ship arrived at the dock with empty cargo holds but was carrying a full load of 5,292 barrels (841,360 liters) of bunker C heavy fuel oil for its intended trip across the Pacific Ocean. At 10 a.m. that same day,[27] seamen from the ordnance battalion began loading the ship with munitions. After four days of around-the-clock loading, about 4,600 tons (4,173 tonnes)[27] of explosives had been stored in its holds. The ship was about 40% full by the evening of July 17.

At 10 p.m. on July 17, Division Three's 98 men were loading E. A. Bryan with 1,000-pound (450 kg) bombs into No. 3 hold, 40 mm shells into No. 5 hold and fragmentation cluster bombs into No. 4 hold.[28] Incendiary bombs were being loaded as well; these bombs weighed 650 lb (290 kg) each and were "live"‍—‌they had their fuzes installed. The incendiary bombs were being loaded carefully one at a time into No. 1 hold‍—‌the hold with a winch brake that might still have been inoperative.[28]

A boxcar delivery containing a new airborne anti-submarine depth charge design, the Mark 47 armed with 252 lb (114 kg) of torpex, was being loaded into No. 2 hold. The torpex charges were more sensitive than TNT to external shock and container dents.[29] On the pier, resting on three parallel rail spurs, were sixteen rail cars holding about 430 short tons (390 t) of explosives.[27] In all, the munitions on the pier and in the ship contained the equivalent of approximately 2,000 short tons (1,800 t) of TNT.[27]

One hundred and two men of the Sixth Division, many fresh from training at NSGL, were busy rigging the newly built Victory ship SS Quinault Victory (also spelled Quinalt) in preparation for loading it with explosives, a task that was to begin at midnight.[30] The Quinault contained a partial load of fuel oil, some of which was of a type that released flammable fumes as it sat, or upon agitation. The fuel, taken aboard at Shell Oil Company's Martinez refinery mid-day on July 17, would normally be sluiced to other fuel tanks in the following 24 hours.[27]

Sixty-seven officers and crew of the two ships were at their stations, and various support personnel were present such as the three-man civilian train crew and a Marine sentry. Nine Navy officers and 29 armed guards watched over the procedure. A Coast Guard fire barge with a crew of five was docked at the pier. An officer who left the docks shortly after 10 p.m. noticed that the Quinault′s propeller was slowly turning over and that the men of Division Three were having trouble pulling munitions from the rail cars because they had been packed so tightly.[28]

At 10:18 p.m., witnesses reported hearing a noise described as "a metallic sound and rending timbers, such as made by a falling boom."[27] Immediately afterward, an explosion occurred on the pier and a fire started. Five to seven seconds later[17][31][32] a more powerful explosion took place as the majority of the ordnance within and near the SS E. A. Bryan detonated in a fireball seen for miles. An Army Air Forces pilot flying in the area reported that the fireball was 3 mi (4.8 km) in diameter.[32] Chunks of glowing hot metal and burning ordnance were flung over 12,000 ft (3,700 m) into the air.[17] The E. A. Bryan was completely destroyed and the Quinault was blown out of the water, torn into sections and thrown in several directions; the stern landed upside down in the water 500 ft (150 m) away. The Coast Guard fire boat CG-60014-F was thrown 600 ft (180 m) upriver, where it sank. The pier, along with its boxcars, locomotive, rails, cargo, and men, was blasted into pieces. Nearby boxcars‍—‌waiting within their revetments to be unloaded at midnight‍—‌were bent inward and crumpled by the force of the shock. The port's barracks and other buildings and much of the surrounding town were severely damaged. Shattered glass and a rain of jagged metal and undetonated munitions caused many more injuries among military personnel and civilians, although no one outside the immediate pier area was killed.[33] Nearly $9.9 million worth of damage ($143.8 million in 2019) was caused to U.S. government property.[34] Seismographs at the University of California, Berkeley sensed the two shock waves traveling through the ground, determining the second, larger event to be equivalent to an earthquake measuring 3.4 on the Richter magnitude scale.[35]

All 320 of the men on duty at the pier died instantly, and 390 civilians and military personnel were injured, many seriously. Among the dead were all five Coast Guard personnel posted aboard the fire barge.[36] Two hundred-two of the dead and 233 of the injured were African-Americans, which accounted for 15% of all African-American casualties during World War II.[37] Naval personnel worked quickly to contain the fires and to prevent other explosions. Injuries were treated, those seriously injured were hospitalized, and uninjured servicemen were evacuated to nearby stations.


My Dad had just arrived in California to serve on the USS Spot, and mentioned the "big blow out" in one of his letters home. The Spot was fifteen miles away in Vallejo and the blast blew out about half the plate glass in town according to Dad.

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Response to mahatmakanejeeves (Original post)

Thu Aug 6, 2020, 05:31 PM

5. Trailing the Galveston hurricane and Texas City explosion, the third deadliest disaster in Texas was

the New London School explosion.

Hat tip: an article I read today while going through old emails. It was about a gas explosion in 2018. It mentioned this incident. It was news to me.

Workers did not smell natural gas before hospital explosion, official says
By John Carroll

Published: Aug. 9, 2018 at 8:23 PM EDT

New London School explosion

The New London School explosion occurred on March 18, 1937, when a natural gas leak caused an explosion, destroying the London School of New London, Texas, a community in Rusk County previously known as "London." The disaster killed more than 295 students and teachers. As of 2017, the event is the third deadliest disaster in the history of Texas, after the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the 1947 Texas City disaster.


In the mid-1930s, the Great Depression was in full swing, but the London school district was one of the richest in America. A 1930 oil find in Rusk County had boosted the local economy and educational spending grew with it. Its taxable value in 1937 had grown to $20 million, with additional revenue seen from 15 oil wells on district property.[2] The London School, a large structure of steel and concrete, was constructed in 1932 at a cost of $1 million (roughly $18.7 million today). The London Wildcats (a play on the term "wildcatter", for an oil prospector) played football in the first stadium in the state to have electric lights.

The school was built on sloping ground and a large air space was enclosed beneath the structure. The school board had overridden the original architect's plans for a boiler and steam distribution system, instead opting to install 72 gas heaters throughout the building.

Early in 1937, the school board canceled their natural gas contract and had plumbers install a tap into Parade Gasoline Company's residue gas line to save money. This practice—while not explicitly authorized by local oil companies—was widespread in the area. The natural gas extracted with the oil was considered a waste product and was flared off. As there was no value to the natural gas, the oil companies turned a blind eye. This "raw" or "wet" gas varied in quality from day to day, even from hour to hour.

Untreated natural gas is both odorless and colorless, so leaks are difficult to detect and may go unnoticed. Gas had been leaking from the residue line tap and built up inside the enclosed crawlspace that ran the entire 253-foot (77 m) length of the building's facade. Students had been complaining of headaches for some time, but little attention had been paid to the issue.


March 18 was a Thursday. Friday's classes were canceled to allow students to participate in the neighboring city of Henderson's Interscholastic Meet, a scholastic and athletic competition. Following the school's normal schedule, first through fourth grade students had been let out early. A PTA meeting was being held in the gymnasium, a separate structure roughly 100 feet (30 m) from the main building. Approximately 500 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time, although some numbers claim there were roughly 694 students in the building and at the campus. At 3:17 p.m., Lemmie R. Butler, an "instructor of manual training", turned on an electric sander. It is believed that the sander's switch caused a spark that ignited the gas-air mixture.

Reports from witnesses state that the walls of the school bulged, the roof lifted from the building and then crashed back down, and the main wing of the structure collapsed. However, there was no fire after the explosion.[9] Survivors in the building claimed that lockers embedded in the wall were thrown at them by the blast, others were picked up by the force of the explosion, and the plaster and mortar formed a white haze. The force of the explosion was so great that a two-ton concrete block was thrown clear off the building and crushed a 1936 Chevrolet parked 200 feet away. Those who evacuated the building after the explosion were in a state of shock, with some recounting that they did not know what to do next and that it seemed the world was deadly silent until the sound came back all at once.

The explosion was its own alarm, reportedly heard up to four miles away from the school.[9] The most immediate response was from parents at the PTA meeting. Within minutes, area residents started to arrive and began digging through the rubble, many with their bare hands. Many survivors also joined in the immediate aftermath in recovery of other survivors and victims.[2] Roughnecks from the oil fields were released from their jobs and brought with them cutting torches and heavy equipment needed to clear the concrete and steel. Not all of the buildings on the 10-acre (4.0 ha) campus were destroyed.

School bus driver Lonnie Barber was transporting elementary students to their homes and was in sight of the school as it exploded. Barber continued his two-hour route, returning children to their parents before rushing back to the school to look for his four children. His son Arden died, but the others were not seriously injured.[ Barber retired the next year. Other school buses were employed to drive ambulatory survivors back to their homes, causing family members who were waiting at the bus stops to demand information from students disembarking.




Adolf Hitler, who was the German Chancellor at the time, paid his respects in the form of a telegram, a copy of which is on display at the London Museum.

Investigation and legislation

Experts from the United States Bureau of Mines concluded that the connection to the residue gas line was faulty. The connection had allowed gas to leak into the school, and since natural gas is invisible and is odorless, the leak was unnoticed. The sanding machine's switch is believed to have caused a spark that ignited the gas-air mixture. To reduce the damage of future leaks, the Texas Legislature began mandating within weeks of the explosion that thiols (mercaptans) be added to natural gas.[1] The strong odor of many thiols makes leaks quickly detectable. The practice quickly spread worldwide.

Shortly after the disaster, the Texas Legislature met in emergency session and enacted the Engineering Registration Act (now rewritten as the Texas Engineering Practice Act). Public pressure was on the government to regulate the practice of engineering due to the faulty installation of the natural gas connection; Carolyn Jones, a nine-year-old survivor, spoke to the Texas Legislature about the importance of safety in schools. The use of the title "engineer" in Texas remains legally restricted to those who have been professionally certified by the state to practice engineering.


Popular culture and media

In 1973, Texas filmmaker Michael Brown produced a half-hour documentary on the explosion thought to be the first ever made on the subject. Called New London: The Day the Clock Stood Still, the film features survivors of the blast and their recollections of that day.


In 2012, the book Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History, by journalists David M. Brown and Michael Wereschagin, was published by Potomac Books. Also in 2012, Ron Rozelle, a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, wrote a book about the tragedy called My Boys and Girls are in There. The book was released to coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the disaster.


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