On 16 April 1947, in the port of Texas City, Texas, the freighter GRANDCAMP, with a cargo of ammonium nitrate, small arms ammunition, machinery, and sisal twine, caught fire. The fire quickly spread to the nearby freighter HIGH FLYER, loaded with ammonium nitrate and sulphur. When the two ships exploded, it largely flattened the harbour area. It is estimated that over 600 people died in the explosion and fires (exact numbers were unattainable due to the extent of damage).
The US Coast Guard investigation of the casualty determined that the fire was initiated by unauthorized smoking in the cargo hold of the GRANDCAMP. It recommended, among other things, that regulations for carriage of dangerous goods be revised. Litigation ensuing from this tragedy ultimately resulted in enactment of the US Federal Torts Claims Act (FTCA).
The First Explosion:
The fire on the S.S. Grandcamp produced a dense, brilliantly colored smoke that could be seen all over town. Fires around the docks were a fairly common occurrence in Texas City; it was not unusual for residents to travel down to the docks to watch the fires and the firemen working, which may explain why there were so many bystanders present — and subsequently so many casualties — at explosion of the S.S. Grandcamp.
The ammonium nitrate onboard the Grandcamp detonated at 9:12 a.m., rupturing the ship and sending the cargo of peanuts, tobacco, twine, bunker oil and the remaining bags of ammonium nitrate 2,000 to 3,000 feet into the air. Fireballs streaked across the sky and could be seen for miles across Galveston Bay as molten ship fragments erupted out of the pier. The blast caused a fifteen-foot tidal wave that crashed onto the dock and flooded the surrounding area. Windows were shattered in Houston, 40 miles to the north, and people in Louisiana felt the shock 250 miles away. Most of the buildings closest to the blast were flattened, and there were many more that had doors and roofs blown off. The Monsanto plant, only three hundred feet away, was destroyed by the blast.
Most of the Texas City Terminal Railways’ warehouses along the docks were a complete loss. Hundreds of employees, pedestrians and bystanders were killed. At the time of the Grandcamp’s explosion, only two additional vessels were docked in port: the S.S. High Flyer and the Wilson B. Keene, both American C-2 cargo ships similar to the Grandcamp.
The intensity of the blast sent shrapnel tearing into the surrounding area. Flaming debris ignited giant tanks full of oil and chemicals stored at the refineries, causing a set of secondary fires and smaller explosions. The Longhorn II, a barge anchored in port, was lifted out of the water by the sheer force of the explosion and landed 100 feet away on the shore. Buildings blazed long after the initial explosion, provoking large-scale emergency relief efforts throughout the day, that night, and into the following day.
The blast registered on a seismograph as far away as Denver, Colorado. Dockworker Pete Suderman remembers flying thirty feet as the blast carried him and several of the dock’s three-inch wooden planks across the pier.11 Nattie Morrow was in her home with her two children and sister-in-law Sadie. She watched the billowing smoke near the Monsanto plant from her back porch just prior to the blast. “Suddenly a thundering boom sounded, and seconds later the door ripped off its facing, skidded across the kitchen floor, and slammed down onto the table where I sat with the baby. The house toppled to one side and sat off its piers at a crazy angle. Broken glass filled the air, and we didn’t know what was happening.”
The chief and 27 firefighters from the Texas City Fire Department were killed in the initial blast. At the time of the explosion, phone services in Texas City were not working because of a telephone operators’ strike. When the operators learned of the accident, they quickly went back to work, but the strike caused an initial delay in coordinating rescue efforts.
Once operators began calling for help, rescue workers from all over the area began responding immediately. The U.S. Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Reserve and the Texas National Guard all sent personnel, including doctors, nurses and ambulances. The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston sent doctors, nurses, and medical students. Firefighters from Galveston, Houston, Fort Crockett, Ellington Field, and surrounding towns arrived to help.
The cities of Galveston, Houston and San Antonio sent policemen to assist the Texas City Police Department in maintaining order after the explosion. The U.S. Army flew in blood plasma, gas masks, food, and other supplies, provided bull-dozers to begin clearing the wreckage, and set up temporary housing for the survivors at Camp Wallace in Hitchcock.5 The Red Cross, Salvation Army and the Boy and Girl Scouts of America sent a flood of volunteers who provided first aid, food, water and comfort to city residents. Volunteers from other local organizations — and others who were not part of any organization — felt compelled to offer what help they could.
There was no operational hospital in Texas City at the time of the disaster, so volunteers converted city hall and the chamber of commerce buildings into makeshift infirmaries. Many wounded were evacuated to John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, the hospital at Fort Crockett, and hospitals in Houston.