Some words about Texas
Across from the Galveston bay is Texas City, a busy working port with convenient access to the Gulf of Mexico and Houston. The city is very important in production and refining petroleum products. The port is with deep water access to the coast that’s why Texas City hosts international shippers hauling everything from electronics to fertilizer.
The town made its headlines in 1947 when a fire on a cargo ship reached the explosive payload and detonated. The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in U.S. history. 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. 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.
World War II times
In times of WWII Texas City had emerged as a strategic vital port for the United States, replacing the supply lines of oil interrupted by enemy submarines on the east and west coasts.
The city population quickly grew while the newly-established refineries and chemical plants ramped up production. The town was playing a main role in supporting the war effort and continued to grow.
After the war, the strategic mission of Texas City’s port was changed, but the town continued to be very important in shipping communities.
After the end of WWII, Europe had shifted from the fall of the Third Reich to a focused recovery effort. European farmers lacking vital supplies relied on the United States and other allied forces to provide assistance.
Texas City became a hub for the shipping of ammonium nitrate, used in agriculture as a high-nitrogen fertilizer. The chemical compound is also a strong oxidizing agent and requires great care in handling, especially around combustible items.
This risk prevented the Port Authority of Houston from authorizing the hazardous cargo to clear its docks. The Port of Texas City was smaller and eager to attract business. The town seized the opportunity, and became a distribution hub for ammonium nitrate.
The S.S. Grandcamp was a French-operated 437-foot vessel tasked with assisting the rebuilding of war-torn Europe. In addition to 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, the ship was carrying ammunition, machinery, and bales of twine. It had just been loaded with supplies and was getting prepared for its journey across the Atlantic.
At approximately 8 a.m. on April 16th, 1947, ship workers noticed smoke emerging from the cargo hold of the docked Grandcamp. First responders attempted to quell the smoke with water and fire extinguishers, but they failed to contain the blaze.
Next, the captain ordered the crew to ”steam the hold,” a method of fire suppression in which steam is directed toward the fire to contain it while preserving the cargo. But the captain was too late, the hull had already reached extreme temperatures. Witnesses reported seeing the water around the ship boiling and instantly vaporizing upon contact with the hull.
Slowly, the cargo hold started to bulge as the steam increased the pressure inside. Just over an hour later, the fire had finally penetrated the cargo hold of ammonium nitrate.
The explosion rocked the port and Texas City. The Grandcamp spewed a mushroom cloud 2,000 feet in the air, blanketing Texas City and most of Galveston. The blast ignited multiple other ships at port, forced a steel barge ashore, and sent a 15-foot surge of water for miles. When the water receded it carried cars and people back into the fiery bay, by now a burning basin covered in oil.
An estimated one thousand buildings were completely destroyed and countless others set on fire from the hurled debris. Citizens as far as 10 miles away were sent to their knees, even witnesses in Houston reported shattered windows.
The shock wave from the explosion was so powerful, it was reported to have knocked planes out of the sky.
More than five hundred homes were leveled and countless others damaged. The two-ton anchor of the Grandcamp was found 2.6 km away in a 10-foot crater. Flaming shrapnel would continue to fall out of the sky over Texas City for several minutes, setting buildings, refineries, and homes on fire.
Experts estimated the blast contained the equivalent of 3.2 kilotons of TNT, rivaling the yield of a non-nuclear bomb.
For hours after the Grandcamp explosion, all available hands were at ground zero assisting with the emergency. Other vessels in port quickly became an afterthought, their captains ordering all available personnel to help the Grandcamp.
Unbeknownst to the emergency responders was one of the nearby ships – also carrying flammable cargo – had caught fire and was in danger of repeating a similar episode.
A rescue crew combing the port for survivors noticed the cargo hold of the High Flyer emitting flames. The emergency personnel didn’t realize the second ship was carrying ammonium nitrate along with a large amount of sulfur.
The rescue team immediately notified port authorities of the fire, but ignorant of the cargo they neglected to call for evacuation procedures. When the High Flyer crew was finally notified, they alerted the emergency crews and retreated to their ship.
The crew of the High Flyer tried valiantly to get the cargo out of harm’s way before it would be ignited as well. They spent hours trying to free the ship from its anchor and other entanglements, to no avail. When authorities realized the fire was accelerating and the ship would not be freed safely in time, the crew was ordered to abandon ship.
Less than an hour later, the High Flyer exploded, rocking the port for the second time. What wasn’t obliterated by the Grandcamp explosion was finished off 15 hours later by the High Flyer’s blast.
The second ship was carrying less ammonium nitrate than the first, but the result was no less catastrophic to the port of Texas City. Ship SS William B. Keene, moored next to the High Flyer, was also destroyed in the second blast. Once again, flaming debris rained down for miles.
The High Flyer’s propeller would be found a mile inland, and was cracked in several places – a testament to the power of the second explosion.