Texas City disaster
The 1947 Texas City disaster was an industrial accident that occurred on Wednesday, April 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas City, Texas, United States, at Galveston Bay. It was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history and one of history's largest non-nuclear explosions. A mid-morning fire started on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the port) and detonated her cargo of about 2,300 tons (about 2,100 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate. This started a chain reaction of fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities, ultimately killing at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department.: 100
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 by the United States to the French Line to assist in the rebuilding of France, along with other efforts in Europe. Along with the 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 ammonium nitrate in the two ships and fertilizer in the adjacent warehouse were intended for export to farmers in Europe. The Grandcamp had arrived from Houston, where the port authority did not permit loading of ammonium nitrate.
The Grandcamp had a mixed cargo, containing chiefly ammonium nitrate, but also twine, peanuts, tobacco, some small arms ammunition, engineering equipment, and cotton.: 1 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 onto the Grandcamp. It was manufactured in a patented process, mixed with clay, petrolatum, rosin and paraffin wax to avoid moisture caking. It was packaged in paper sacks, then transported and stored at higher temperatures that increased its chemical activity. Longshoremen reported the bags were warm to the touch before loading.
On April 16, 1947, around 8 a.m., smoke was spotted in the cargo hold of the Grandcamp while she was still moored. Longshoremen used a gallon jug of water and two fire extinguishers, but they had no effect and the cargo hold filled with smoke. The longshoremen were then ordered to leave. At this point, the captain of the Grandcamp ordered that no water be used, lest the cargo be ruined. Instead, he ordered all hatches sealed, and the hold to be filled with steam in an attempt to smother the fire.: 2 This was unlikely to be effective, as ammonium nitrate is an oxidizer, 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. Around 8:30, the steam pressure became so great that it blew the hatches off.: 2 A column of yellow-orange smoke billowed out, the typical color for nitrogen dioxide fumes. The fire and its unusual looking smoke attracted spectators along the shoreline, who believed they were at a safe distance. Responding fire departments included the Texas City Fire Department, and the Republic Oil Refining Company firefighting team.: 2
At 9:12 a.m., the ammonium nitrate reached an explosive threshold from the combination of heat and pressure. The vessel detonated, causing utter destruction within 2,000 feet and extreme damage throughout the port. The tremendous blast produced a 15 ft (4.6 m) wave.: 3 The blast leveled nearly 1,000 buildings on land. The Grandcamp explosion destroyed the Monsanto Chemical Company plant, killing 145 of its 450 workers. Flying shrapnel 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, and the Grandcamp's anchor was hurled across the city. Two sightseeing airplanes flying nearby were blown out of the sky, while 10 miles (16 km) away, half of the windows in Galveston were shattered. The explosion blew the almost 6,350 short tons (5,760 t) 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 had set the High Flyer free from its moorings, and it had drifted across the harbor, coming to rest against the Wilson B. Keene. Her crew stayed aboard for an hour before the smoke of the burning oil in the harbor forced them to leave. In the afternoon, two men boarded the High Flyer searching for injured. They noted that her cargo was ablaze, and reported it to someone on the harborfront. This message seems to have gone unheeded for several hours until it was realized that this indicated a serious problem. Only around 11 p.m. did tugboats attempt to pull her away from the docks. Despite having cut her anchor, they were unable to move her. At 1 a.m. the next day (April 17), the volunteers attempting to set her to sea fled. At 1:10 p.m. the Higher Flyer exploded with even more might than the Grandcamp, according to witnesses. Casualties were light since the docks had already been evacuated, but the second explosion ensured that the property damage was total. The steel frame of the ship had been heated until glowing, and these chunks rained down upon the city setting mass fires.: 4–5
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, in order to move her, without success. After smoke had been pouring from the hold for over 5 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 people 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 is located near the anchor of the Grandcamp. The propeller is cracked in several places, and one blade has a large piece missing.
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 after the atom bomb was dropped at Nagasaki.
Of the dead, 405 were identified and 63 have never been identified. The latter remains 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 were hundreds more killed but uncounted, including visiting seamen, undocumented laborers and their families, and an untold number of travelers. But there were also some survivors among people as close as 70 feet (21 m) from the dock. The victims' bodies quickly filled the local morgue. Several bodies were laid out in the local high school's gymnasium for identification by family or friends.
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 (equivalent to $916,000,000 in 2019). This number may not encompass the full scope of damage: a further $500 million of oil products burned (equivalent to $4,580,000,000 in 2019). Most damaging of all, more than 800 people were left orphaned or widowed.: 6
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 was installed at 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. It 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 that 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. 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 husks.
The cause of the initial fire on board the Grandcamp was never determined. It may have been started by a cigarette discarded the previous day, meaning the ship's cargo had been smouldering throughout the night when the fire was discovered on the morning of the day of the explosion.
Historian Hugh Stephens identifies human error as the cause, and cites numerous reasons as to why a minor fire became such a severe incident.: 6
Reactions and rebuilding
The disaster received national media attention, with offers of assistance coming from around 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 entertainers including Phil Harris, Frank Sinatra, and Ann Sheridan. In the end, the Texas City Relief Fund raised more than $1 million ($12.9 million in today's terms). Payouts for fire insurance claims reached nearly $4 million ($48 million in today's terms).
Within days of the disaster, major companies that had lost facilities in the explosions announced plans to rebuild in Texas City and in some cases to expand their operations. Some companies implemented policies of retaining all of the hourly workers who had previously worked at destroyed facilities with plans to use them in the rebuilding. Cost estimates of the industrial reconstruction were estimated at approximately $100 million ($1.21 billion adjusted for inflation).
"Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the explosion (...), just as the Phoenix bird symbolizes resurrection from the ashes of despair, the 'Phoenix Fountain' epitomizes courage and the triumph of the human spirit. (...) Chewatah, Washington Artist David Govedare was commissioned by Mayor Charles T. Doyle (...) [to] produce this twelve foot sculpture from half inch cor-ten steel. Architect Joseph Allen Hoover and City Engineer James McWhorter designed the fountain built by Texas City's Public Works Department."
Many of the legal cases seeking compensation 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. This was 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. 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 million had been made.
- List of ammonium nitrate disasters
- Largest artificial non-nuclear explosions
- Halifax Explosion
- Oppau explosion (1921)
- West Fertilizer Company explosion in West, Texas
- 2015 Tianjin explosions
- 2020 Beirut explosion
- "Texas City, Texas Disaster". Fire Prevention and Engineering Bureau of Texas. April 29, 1947. Retrieved 2014-12-29.
- Stephens, Hugh W. (1997). The Texas City Disaster, 1947. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-77723-X.
- Pitta, Terra (2015). Catastrophe: A Guide to World's Worst Industrial Disasters. Alpha Editions. ISBN 978-93-85505-17-1.
- "Fertilizer explosion kills 581 in Texas". HISTORY. July 28, 2019. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
- "Fire on the Grandcamp". Moore Memorial Public Library. Retrieved 2014-12-29.
- "Pyrotechnics, Explosives & Fireworks". Greg Goebel / Advameg, Inc.
- "Hundreds killed, thousands injured in Texas City disaster of 1947". abc13. April 16, 2019. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
- Lienhard, John H. (1996). Engines of our Ingenuity: No. 1138: The Texas City Disaster. Radio broadcast: University of Houston.
- "The First Explosion – 1947 Texas City Disaster". www.texascity-library.org.
- "Fertilizer explosion kills 581 in Texas – Apr 16, 1947 – HISTORY.com".
- 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.
- "FindLaw's United States Supreme Court case and opinions". Findlaw.
- Belli, Melvin, Ready for the Plaintiff!, Popular Library, (1965), pp. 83–85
- "Public Law 378 Chapter 864 69 Stat. Page 707" (PDF).
- Final reports
- Record of Proceedings of Board Investigation Inquiring Into Losses By Fires and Explosions of the French Steamship Grandcamp and U.S. Steamships Highflyer and Wilson B. Keene at Texas City, Texas 16 and 17 April 1947, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Treasury Department, pages 538-550
- Legal documents
- Collections and galleries
- 1947 Texas City Disaster Web Exhibit from the Moore Memorial Public Library in Texas City
- "The Explosion: 50 years later, Texas City still remembers." - Collection of articles by the Houston Chronicle
- Other links
- 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
- Joint report of Fire Preventions and Engineering Board of Texas and the National Board of Fire Underwriters
- Images from the day after the explosion at the UH Digital Library
- Footage appears in the film Encounters with Disaster, released in 1979 and produced by Sun Classic Pictures. Viewable on the Internet Archive.
- The Texas City Disaster (1947) Film by the Texas Department of Public Safety on Texas Archive of the Moving Image