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Wed Aug 5, 2020, 08:29 AM

Before Beirut, there was the Texas City Disaster in 1947


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.


The ammonium nitrate, needed either as fertilizer or an explosive, was manufactured in Nebraska and Iowa and shipped to Texas City by rail before being loaded on the Grandcamp. It was manufactured in a patented process, mixed with clay, petrolatum, rosin and paraffin wax to avoid moisture caking. It was also packaged in paper sacks, then transported and stored at temperatures that increased its chemical activity. Longshoremen reported the bags were warm to the touch before loading.

On April 16, 1947, around 8:00 a.m. smoke was spotted in the cargo hold of the Grandcamp while she was still moored. Over the next hour, attempts to extinguish the fire or bring it under control failed as a red glow returned after each effort to douse the fire.

Shortly before 9:00 a.m., the captain ordered his men to steam the hold, a firefighting method where steam is piped in to extinguish fires, to preserve the cargo. This was unlikely to be effective, as ammonium nitrate produces its own oxygen, thus neutralizing the extinguishing properties of steam. The steam may have contributed to the fire by converting the ammonium nitrate to nitrous oxide, while augmenting the already intense heat in the ship's hold.

The fire attracted spectators along the shoreline, who believed they were at a safe distance. Eventually, the steam pressure inside the ship blew the hatches open, and yellow-orange smoke billowed out. This color is typical for nitrogen dioxide fumes. The unusual color of the smoke attracted more spectators. Spectators also noted that the water around the docked ship was boiling from the heat, and the splashing water touching the hull was being vaporized into steam. The cargo hold and deck began to bulge as the pressure of the steam increased inside.

At 9:12 a.m., the ammonium nitrate reached an explosive threshold from the combination of heat and pressure. The vessel then detonated, causing great destruction and damage throughout the port. The tremendous blast sent a 15-foot (4.5 m) wave that was detectable nearly 100 miles (160 km) off the Texas shoreline. The blast leveled nearly 1,000 buildings on land. The Grandcamp explosion destroyed the Monsanto Chemical Company plant and resulted in ignition of refineries and chemical tanks on the waterfront. Falling bales of burning twine from the ship's cargo added to the damage while the Grandcamp's anchor was hurled across the city. Two sightseeing airplanes flying nearby had their wings shorn off, forcing them out of the sky. 10 miles (16 km) away, half of the windows in Galveston were shattered. The explosion blew almost 6,350 short tons (5,760 metric tons) of the ship's steel into the air, some at supersonic speed. Official casualty estimates came to a total of 567, including all the crewmen who remained aboard the Grandcamp. All but one member of the 28-man Texas City volunteer fire department were killed in the initial explosion on the docks while fighting the shipboard fire. With fires raging throughout Texas City, first responders from other areas were initially unable to reach the site of the disaster.

The first explosion ignited ammonium nitrate in the nearby cargo ship High Flyer. The crews spent hours attempting to cut the High Flyer free from her anchor and other obstacles, without success. After smoke had been pouring from the hold for over five hours, and about 15 hours after the explosions aboard the Grandcamp, the High Flyer exploded, demolishing the nearby SS Wilson B. Keene, killing at least two more and increasing the damage to the port and other ships with more shrapnel and burning material. One of the propellers on the High Flyer was blown off and subsequently found nearly 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 blade has a large piece missing.

The cause of the initial fire on board the Grandcamp was never determined, but it may have been started by a cigarette discarded the previous day, meaning the ship's cargo had been smouldering throughout the night when it was discovered on the morning of the day of the explosion.

Scale of the disaster
The Texas City disaster is generally considered the worst industrial accident in American history. Witnesses compared the scene to the fairly recent images of the 1943 air raid on Bari and the much larger devastation at Nagasaki. Of the dead, 405 were identified and 63 have never been identified. These were placed in a memorial cemetery in the north part of Texas City near Moses Lake. An additional 113 people were classified as missing, for no identifiable parts were ever found. This figure includes firefighters who were aboard Grandcamp when she exploded. There is some speculation that there may have been hundreds more killed but uncounted, including visiting seamen, non-census laborers and their families, and an untold number of travelers. However, there were some survivors as close as 70 feet (21 m) from the dock. The victims' bodies quickly filled the local morgue, and several bodies were laid out in the local high school's gymnasium for identification by loved ones.

Parking lot 1⁄4 mile (0.40 km) away from the explosion

More than 5,000 people were injured, with 1,784 admitted to 21 area hospitals. More than 500 homes were destroyed and hundreds damaged, leaving 2,000 homeless. The seaport was destroyed, and many businesses were flattened or burned. Over 1,100 vehicles were damaged and 362 freight cars were obliterated—the property damage was estimated at $100 million[7] (equivalent to $1,100,000,000 in 2018).

A 2-short-ton (1.8-metric-ton) anchor of Grandcamp was hurled 1.62 miles (2.61 km) and found in a 10-foot (3 m) crater. It now rests in a memorial park. The other main 5-short-ton (4.5-metric-ton) anchor was hurled 1⁄2 mile (800 m) to the entrance of the Texas City Dike, and rests on a "Texas-shaped" memorial at the entrance. Burning wreckage ignited everything within miles, including dozens of oil storage tanks and chemical tanks. The nearby city of Galveston, Texas, was covered with an oily fog which left deposits over every exposed outdoor surface.

Firefighting casualties
Some of the deaths and damage in Texas City were due to the destruction and subsequent burning of several chemical plants (including Monsanto and Union Carbide), oil storage, and other facilities near the explosions. 27 of the 28 members of Texas City's volunteer fire department and 3 of 4 members of the Texas City Heights Volunteer Fire Department who were on the docks near the burning ship were killed. One firefighter, Fred Dowdy, who had not responded to the initial call, coordinated other firefighters arriving from communities up to 60 miles (100 km) away. Alvin Fussell, sole survivor of the Heights Volunteer fire fighters, was driving to work in Alvin when he heard of the fire on the radio. Eventually 200 firefighters arrived, from as far away as Los Angeles. Fires resulting from the cataclysmic events were still burning a week after the disaster, and the process of body recovery took nearly a month. All four fire engines of Texas City were twisted and burned hulks.


There are parallels to the Beirut accident, primarily the amount of ammonium nitrate that was involved..

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Reply Before Beirut, there was the Texas City Disaster in 1947 (Original post)
Dennis Donovan Aug 5 OP
Paladin Aug 5 #1
GoCubsGo Aug 5 #6
eppur_se_muova Aug 5 #2
malaise Aug 5 #3
Dennis Donovan Aug 5 #4
malaise Aug 5 #5

Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 08:43 AM

1. Texas City was the first thing I thought of.

My mother felt the earth shake under her feet, that day in 1947. And she was 200 miles away at the time, in San Antonio. I heard the Texas City blast set off seismic detectors as far away as Denver.

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Response to Paladin (Reply #1)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 05:53 PM

6. Yep, that and the Halifax explosion.

Although the latter involved munitions and other explosive chemicals. But, the results were just as devastating, if not more so.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 09:34 AM

2. Book rec: City on Fire: The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Batt

https://www.powells.com/book/city-on-fire-9780292759237 (most recent edition)
https://www.powells.com/book/city-on-fire-the-explosion-that-devastat-9780060959913#product_details (older edition, more details)

This has gone through a couple of editions, with slight change in the subtitle.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 09:37 AM

3. Don't forget West Texas in 2013 although the death count was low

and the Oklahoma City bombing

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Response to malaise (Reply #3)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 03:34 PM

4. Ammonium nitrate can be your friend

...or it can be a big ol' problem

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Reply #4)

Wed Aug 5, 2020, 04:55 PM

5. Given that West Texas was 2013, I can see why they seized the AN from

the distressed Russian/Georgian ship on its way to Mozambique the year after that.
But who the hell leaves it there for six years in the middle of the city.
This is a catastrophe not in terms of life although well over a hundred people are dead but the destruction of homes, cars and businesses will have long term implications for Lebanon.

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