The Texas City industrial disaster explosion of 1947, was sparked by the fire and explosion of the S.S. Grandcamp in Texas City, Texas. The blast set off a chain of fires as well as a 15-foot (4.5-metre) tidal wave. Between 400 and 600 people were killed, with many thousands injured.
The S.S. Grandcamp was originally christened the S. S. Benjamin R. Curtis in Los Angeles in 1942. It served with the Pacific fleets during World War II. After the war was over, the U.S. government offered the ship to France to aid in the restoration of Europe. A French line renamed it S.S. Grandcamp after the beach at Normandy, “Grandcamp-les-bains.”
Before arriving in Texas City, the Grandcamp made several stops, including one in Belgium where sixteen cases of small arms ammunition were loaded onto the ship. After crossing the Atlantic, it docked in Cuba and Houston to exchange several freights of commonplace items like twine and peanuts before anchoring in the Port of Texas City at the North Slip of Pier O. The Grandcamp had docked in Texas City to pick up a load of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
The morning of 16 April 1947 dawned clear and crisp, cooled by a brisk north wind. Just before 8:00 A.M., longshoremen removed the hatch covers on Hold 4 of the French Liberty ship Grandcamp as they prepared to load the remainder of a consignment of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Some 2,300 tons were already onboard, 880 of which were in the lower part of Hold 4. The remainder of the ship’s cargo consisted of large balls of sisal twine, peanuts, drilling equipment, tobacco, cotton, and a few cases of small ammunition. No special safety precautions were in focus at the time.
Several longshoremen descended into the hold and waited for the first pallets holding the 100-pound packages to be hoisted from dockside. Soon thereafter, someone smelled smoke. A plume was observed rising between the cargo holds and the ships hull, apparently about seven or eight layers of sacks down. Neither a gallon jug of drinking water nor the contents of two fire extinguishers supplied by crew members seemed to do much good. As the fire continued to grow, someone lowered a fire hose, but the water was not turned on. Since the area was filling fast with smoke, the longshoremen were ordered out of the hold.
While Leonard Boswell, the gang foreman, and Peter Suderman, superintendent of stevedores, discussed what action to take, the master, or captain, of the Grandcamp appeared and stated in intelligible English that he did not want to put out the fire with water because it would ruin the cargo. Instead, he elected to suppress the flames by having the hatches battened and covered with tarpaulins, the ventilators closed, and the steam system turned on.
At the masters request, stevedores started removing cases of small arms ammunition from Hold 5 as a precautionary measure. As the fire grew, the increased heat forced the stevedores and some crew members to leave the ship. The Grandcamp’s whistle sounded an alarm that was quickly echoed by the siren of the Texas City Terminal Railway Company. despite a strike by the telephone workers, Suderman, seriously concerned by now, managed to reach the Fire Department and then called Galveston for a fire boat.
It was now about 8:30. At this point, growing pressure from the compressed steam fed into Hold 4 blew off the hatch covers, and a thick column of orange smoke billowed into the morning sky. Attracted by its unusual colour and the sirens, several hundred onlookers began gathering a few hundred feet away at the head of the ship. Twenty-six men and the four trucks of the Volunteer Fire Department, followed by the Republic Oil Refining Company fire-fighting team, arrived on the scene and set up their hoses. A photograph taken at approximately 8:45 shows at least one stream playing on the deck of the Grandcamp, which was apparently hot enough to vaporize the water.
Around 9:00, flames erupted from the open hatch, with smoke variously described as “a pretty gold, yellow colour” or as “orange smoke in the morning sunlight…beautiful to see.” Twelve minutes later, the Grandcamp disintegrated in a prodigious explosion heard as far as 150 miles distant. A huge mushroom like cloud billowed more than 2,ooo feet into the morning air, the shockwave knocking two light planes flying overhead out of the sky. A thick curtain of steel shards scythed through workers along the docks and a crowd of curious onlookers who had gathered at the head of the slip at which the ship was moored.
Blast over pressure and heat disintegrated the bodies of the firefighters and ship’s crew still on board. At the Monsanto plant, located across the slip, 145 of 450 shift workers perished. A fifteen-foot wave of water thrust from the slip by the force of the blast swept a large steel barge ashore and carried dead and injured persons back into the turning basin as it receded. Fragments of the Grandcamp, some weighing several tons, showered down throughout the port and town for several minutes, extending the range of casualties and property damage well into the business district, about a mile away. Falling shrapnel bombarded buildings and oil storage tanks at nearby refineries, ripping open pipes and tanks of flammable liquids and starting numerous fires. After the shrapnel, flaming balls of sisal and cotton from the ships cargo fell out of the sky, adding to the growing conflagration.
The sheer power of the explosion and the towering cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky told everyone within twenty miles that something terrible had happened. People on the street in Galveston were thrown to the pavement, and glass store fronts shattered. Buildings swayed in Baytown fifteen miles to the north. The towering smoke column served as a grim beacon for motorists driving along the Houston-Galveston highway, some of whom immediately turned toward Texas City to help. In Texas City itself, stunned townspeople who started toward the docks soon encountered wounded persons staggering out of the swirling vortex of smoke and flame, most covered with a thick coat of black, oily water. Many agonizing hours were to pass before a semblance of order began to replace the shock and confusion caused by this totally unexpected and devastating event.
As the surge of injured quickly overwhelmed the towns three small medical clinics, the city auditorium was pressed into service as a makeshift first-aid center. Within an hour doctors, nurses, and ambulances began arriving unsummoned from Galveston and nearby military bases. Serious casualties were taken to Galveston hospitals and later to military bases and even to Houston, fifty miles away. State troopers and law enforcement officers from nearby communities helped Texas City’s seventeen-man police force maintain order and assisted in search and rescue.
The horror was not over yet. As help poured into Texas City, no one gave much thought to another Liberty ship tied up in the adjoining slip. The High Flyer was loaded with sulfur as well as a thousand tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The force of the Grandcamp’s explosion had torn the High Flyer from its moorings and caused it to drift across the slip, where it lodged against another vessel, the Wilson B. Keene.
The High Flyer was severely damaged, but many of its crew members, although injured, remained on board for about an hour until the thick, oily smoke and sulfur fumes drifting across the waterfront forced the master to abandon ship. Much later in the afternoon, two men looking for casualties boarded the High Flyer and noticed flames coming from one of the holds. Although they reported this to someone at the waterfront, several more hours passed before anyone understood the significance of this situation, and not until 11:00 P.M. did tugs manned by volunteers arrive from Galveston to pull the burning ship away from the docks.
Even though a boarding party cut the anchor chain, the tugs were unable to extract the ship from the slip. By 1:00 A.M. on 17th April, flames were shooting out of the hold. The tugs retrieved the boarders, severed tow lines, and moved quickly out of the slip. Ten minutes later, the High Flyer exploded in a blast witnesses thought even more powerful than that of the Grandcamp.
Although casualties were light because rescue personnel had evacuated the dock area, the blast compounded already severe property damage. In what witnesses described as something resembling a fireworks display, incandescent chunks of steel which had been the ship arched high into the night sky and fell over a wide radius, starting numerous fires. Crude oil tanks burst into flames, and a chain reaction spread fires to other structures previously spared damage. When dawn arrived, large columns of thick, black smoke were visible thirty miles away. These clouds hovered over Texas City for days until the fires gradually burned out or were extinguished by weary fire-fighting crews.
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.
The second blast was anticipated by nearly everyone present. Ben Kaplan of KTHT news in Houston broadcasted live coverage of the second explosion over the radio: “Here comes another explosion — you have just heard it. The sky is like broad daylight.”
Virtually everyone was removed from the area by the time the ship exploded, limiting casualties from the second blast. The explosion wrecked the Keene and demolished the pier and several nearby grain elevators. Apart from that, it was difficult to tell what was damaged by the first blast and what by the second. Fires started by the first explosion worsened as the second blast spewed more shrapnel, flaming debris, and cargo into the air.
The high school gymnasium was converted into a temporary morgue, and McGar’s garage was used as an embalming room. A number of morticians, including some students, volunteered their services as well. In the days after the explosions, 150 embalmers worked on the bodies in the garage. Students from local dental schools were called in to aid with the identification of the dead through dental records.
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 200 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 travellers. However, there were some survivors as close as 70 feet (21 m) from the dock.
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.
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 ($11.3 million in today’s terms). Payouts for fire insurance claims reached nearly $4 million ($42 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. 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 labelling 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.
When the last claim had been processed in 1957, 1,394 awards, totalling nearly $17,000,000, had been made.
In 2005, Texas City was home to another large explosion when a fire and explosion at a refinery owned by the British oil company BP killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 people. In 2010, soon after BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the company agreed to pay a record $87 million federal fine for the 2005 refinery explosion. The Times reported that the penalty “does reflect what many critics have said is a corporate culture that has emphasized speed and profits over safety.”
Soon after the fine was agreed to, residents of Texas City filed a lawsuit against the BP refinery for releasing 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment where many children came down with respiratory problems. Despite the refinery’s history as a major employer in the city, several longtime employees supported the suit. BP announced in 2011 that it would sell the refinery.