Texas City disaster
The Texas City disaster of April 16, 1947 was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions. Originating with a mid-morning fire on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the Port of Texas City), its cargo of approximately 2,300 tons (approximately 2,100 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate detonated, with the initial blast and subsequent chain-reaction of further fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities killing 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 Grandcamp was a recently re-activated 437-foot-long (133 m) Liberty ship. Originally named the SS Benjamin R. Curtis in Los Angeles in 1942, the ship served in the Pacific theatre and was mothballed in Philadelphia after World War II. In a Cold War gesture, the ship was assigned to the French Line to assist in the rebuilding of Europe. Along with ammonium nitrate—a very common cargo on the high seas—it was carrying small arms ammunition, machinery, and bales of sisal twine on the deck. Another ship in the harbor, the SS High Flyer, was docked about 600 feet (200 m) away from the SS Grandcamp. The High Flyer contained an additional 961 short tons (872 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate and 1,800 short tons (1,600 metric tons) of sulfur. The ammonium nitrate in the two ships and fertilizer in the adjacent warehouse was on its way to farmers in Europe. The Grandcamp had arrived from Houston, Texas, where the port authority did not permit loading of ammonium nitrate.
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 prior to loading.
At around 8:00 a.m. on April 16, 1947, smoke was spotted in the cargo hold of the Grandcamp while it was still moored at its dock. Over the next hour, attempts to put out the fire or put 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 put out fires in the hope of preserving the cargo. This action was unlikely to have been effective as ammonium nitrate produces its own oxygen, thereby neutralizing the extinguishing properties of the steam. The steam may have even contributed to the fire by converting the ammonium nitrate to nitrous oxide, an oxidizer, while augmenting the already intense heat in the ship's hold.
Meanwhile, the fire had attracted a crowd of spectators along the shoreline, who believed they were a safe distance away. Eventually, the ship's hatches were blown open from the steam pressure inside and yellow-orange smoke billowed out, the color that is produced when nitrogen oxide is burnt. The unusual color of the smoke attracted even more spectators. Spectators also noted that the water around the docked ship was already boiling from the heat, and the splashing water touching the hull of the ship was 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 and 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 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, people in Galveston were forced to their knees; windows were shattered in Houston, Texas, 40 miles (60 km) away. People felt the shock 100 miles (160 km) away in Louisiana. 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 onboard the Grandcamp, but many victims were burned to ashes or blown to bits, and the official death total is believed to be an undercount. All but one member of the Texas City volunteer fire department were killed in the initial explosion on the docks while fighting the shipboard fire, and with the 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 its anchor and other obstacles, but without success. After smoke had been pouring out of its hold for over five hours, and about 15 hours after the explosions aboard the Grandcamp, the High Flyer blew up demolishing the nearby SS Wilson B. Keene, killing at least two more people and increasing the damage to the port and other ships with more shrapnel and fire. One of the propellers on the High Flyer was blown off, and found almost 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.
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 it 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.
More than 5,000 people were injured, with 1,784 admitted to twenty-one 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 ($1.06 billion in today's terms).
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 (0.80 km) 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.
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. Twenty-seven of the 28 members of Texas City's volunteer fire department and three 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. 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.
A positive result of the Texas City disaster was widespread disaster response planning to help organize plant, local, and regional responses to emergencies.
Reactions and rebuilding
The disaster gained attention from the national media. Offers of assistance came in from all over the country. Several funds were established to handle donations, particularly the Texas City Relief Fund, created by the city's mayor Curtis Trahan. One of the largest fundraising efforts for the city and the victims of the disaster was organized by Sam Maceo, one of the two brothers who ran organized crime in Galveston at the time. Maceo organized a large-scale benefit on the island featuring some of the most famous entertainers of the time including Phil Harris, Frank Sinatra, and Ann Sheridan. In the end, the Texas City Relief Fund raised more than $1 million ($11.2 million in today's terms). Payouts for fire insurance claims reached nearly $4 million ($41.8 million in today's terms).
Within days after the disaster, major companies that had lost facilities in the explosions announced plans to rebuild in Texas City and even expand their operations. Some companies implemented policies of retaining all of the hourly workers who had previously worked at destroyed facilities with plans to utilize them in the rebuilding. In all, the expenditures for industrial reconstruction were estimated to have been approximately $100 million ($1.06 billion in today's terms).
Hundreds of lawsuits were filed as a result of the disaster. Many of them were combined into Elizabeth Dalehite, et al. v. United States, 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 and the subsequent carnage. On June 10, 1952, the U.S. 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. The Supreme Court affirmed that decision (346 U.S. 15, June 8, 1953), in a 4-to-3 opinion, noting that the district court had no jurisdiction under the federal statute to find the U.S. government liable for "negligent planning decisions" which were properly delegated to various departments and agencies. In short, the FTCA clearly exempts "failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty", and the court found that all of the alleged acts in this case were discretionary in nature.
In its dissent, the three justices argued that, under the FTCA, "Congress has defined the tort liability of the government as analogous to that of a private person," i.e., when carrying out duties unrelated to governing. In this case, "a policy adopted in the exercise of an immune discretion was carried out carelessly by those in charge of detail," and that a private person would certainly be held liable for such acts. It should also be noted that a private person is held to a higher standard of care when carrying out "inherently dangerous" acts such as transportation and storage of explosives.
According to Melvin Belli in his book Ready for the Plaintiff! (1965), Congress acted to provide some compensation after the courts refused to do so. The Dalehite decision was eventually "appealed" to Congress, where relief was granted by means of legislation (Public Law 378, 69 Stat. 707 (1955)). When the last claim had been processed in 1957, 1,394 awards, totaling nearly $17,000,000, had been made.
- Texas City, Texas, Disaster, April 16, 17, 1947. Fire Prevention and Engineering Bureau of Texas, Dallas, Texas; The National Board of Fire Underwriters, New York, New York. 1947.
- Stephens, Hugh W. (1997). The Texas City Disaster, 1947. University of Texas Press. p. 100. ISBN 0-292-77723-X.
- "Pyrotechnics, Explosives & Fireworks". Greg Goebel / Advameg, Inc.
- Lienhard, John H. (1996). Engines of our Ingenuity: No. 1138: The Texas City Disaster. Radio broadcast: University of Houston.
- This Day in History: Fertilizer explosion kills 581 in Texas
- Stephens (1997), p. 104–105.
- McComb, David G. (2000). Galveston: a history and a guide. Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 176. ISBN 0-292-72049-1.
- Minutaglio, Bill (2003). City on Fire: The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Battle. Harper. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-06-095991-3.
- Belli, Melvin, Ready for the Plaintiff!, Popular Library, (1965), pp. 83–85
- 1947 Texas City Disaster Web Exhibit from the Moore Memorial Public Library in Texas City
- Headline, NY Times, April 17, 1947, Blasts and Fires Wreck Texas City of 15,000; 300 to 1,200 Dead; Thousands Hurt, Homeless; Wide Coast Area Rocked, Damage in Millions
- Texas City Disaster, 1947 photographs from the Moore Memorial Public Library, hosted by the Portal to Texas History
- Handbook of Texas entry
- Olafson, Steve. "THE EXPLOSION: 50 YEARS LATER, TEXAS CITY STILL REMEMBERS/'Texas City just blew up'/A powerful chemical explosion 50 years ago propelled a small port town into an unwelcome national and world spotlight." Houston Chronicle. Sunday April 13, 1997. Special 2.
- Gonzales, J.R. "Newly discovered photos show extent of destruction at Texas City." Houston Chronicle. April 16, 2010.
- Details and photos of local destruction
- Supreme Court opinion, Dalehite v. U.S., 1953
- Report of the US Coast Guard
- Joint report of Fire Preventions and Engineering Board of Texas & the National Board of Fire Underwriters
- Images from the day after the explosion at the UH Digital Library