Some had survived the horrors of World War I and World War II only to return home and meet their demise in one of the most devastating disasters in American history. Some were immigrants from Mexico, Ireland and Czechoslovakia who worked as laborers, longshoremen, warehousemen and stevedores. One was just sixteen years old, working as a truck driver for his family’s business and another lingered for two months before succumbing to his grave injuries.
The day was April 16, 1947 and it began as a cool, beautiful and clear morning with no warning of an event that would change the landscape and history of Texas City, Texas. Just ten miles from Galveston, the town had burgeoned after World War II with returning veterans seeking employment. The Texas City Chamber of Commerce had used the slogans “Texas City: Port of Opportunity” and “Texas City: Heart of the Greatest Industrial Development in the Country” to attract businesses and workers.
Monsanto Chemical Company manufactured styrene, an essential ingredient for the production of synthetic rubber. They had also discovered a way to use petroleum to make plastic. Union Carbide, the Humble, Amoco and Republic oil refineries, the Texas City Terminal Railway Company were in need of both skilled and unskilled laborers. So many came seeking employment that housing became scarce so some lived in surrounding towns, while Mexican and Negro laborers were confined to an area of Texas City near Monsanto called The Bottom. It was nothing more than a shanty town consisting of unpaved streets and poorly constructed shacks.
The April 8 issue of Time Magazine had trumpeted “the burgeoning Age of Chemistry,” with Texas “well on its way to becoming the chemical capital of the world.” Just a few years prior, a group of scientists had worked in secret to combine chemistry and physics, creating a powerful weapon which ended World War II. Following the war, scientists who had worked for Hitler were being brought to America, mostly to prevent them from being recruited by the Russians. The Cold War had already begun.
Europe needed to be rebuilt after the war. Not only had cities and villages been devastated but fields had been bombed and trampled by soldiers and heavy machinery. The land would need to be restored and nurtured so it could again produce food to feed the masses in Europe. The most promising and efficient way to accomplish that was to ship massive amounts of ammonium nitrate and other nitrogen compounds to Europe. Texas City was the port where all manufactured and stockpiled quantities of ammonium nitrate were shipped to be loaded on to European ships.
That day the Grandcamp, a re-commissioned Liberty ship flying under the French flag, was in the port awaiting the final load. Approximately 2,300 tons had already been loaded and longshoremen descended into Hold 4 to await the last pallets containing one hundred pound packages of ammonium nitrate. The ship’s other cargo consisted of peanuts, cotton, tobacco, large balls of sisal wire and cases of small ammunition.
After smoke was detected, officials managed to summon the fire department in spite of a telephone strike. Instead of using water to put out the fire, officials elected to use steam to prevent the cargo from being ruined. By 8:30 a.m., however, the compressed steam had built up enough pressure to blow the hatch off of Hold 4. From there came an orange-colored billow of smoke which began to attract onlookers near the ship.
At 9:00 a.m. flames began to shoot out of the open hatch accompanied by smoke which was described as “a pretty gold, yellow color” or as “orange smoke in the morning sunlight…beautiful to see.” Twelve minutes later the Grandcamp exploded with such force that it was heard 150 miles away. Nine hundred miles away in Denver, Colorado a geologist noticed activity on the seismograph. He was sure a massive explosion has occurred somewhere in southeast Texas.
As you can imagine the explosion and its aftermath were extremely devastating. In just a matter of seconds, almost 600 people were killed, some confirmed dead and some never found but presumed dead. Those who managed to avoid death fled the scene covered in a mixture of mud, oil and molasses. Caucasians, assumed to be Negroes because they were covered in the black muck, were taken to the “colored wards” of the hospital. Many had their clothing blown off of them. It would take years for survivors to remove minute pieces of glass that had been embedded in their skin.
Early on the morning of April 17, just hours after the first explosion, another explosion occurred – more powerful than the first, but only two more people were killed. It would take weeks for bodies to be processed and identified. Death records weren’t certified until much later.
The aftermath of the explosions and the rebuilding of Texas City would take years to resolve and complete. Survivors filed suit and took their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, suing the federal government for neglect in failing to inform workers of the dangers of ammonium nitrate and its explosive capabilities. Court after court had been reluctant to set a precedent whereby the federal government could be held culpable for disasters like the Texas City explosions.
In 1955 the Texas City Claims Bill was finally ushered through Congress by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. On average each person eligible to file a claim received just over $12,000.00.
The story made headlines around the world and the aftermath lingered for years with the lawsuits, survivors filing life insurance claims and getting on with their lives without their loved ones. There are many historical sources on the internet and in libraries if you want to read more. Here are some links to view pictures of the devastation:
I read one book, City on Fire, which chronicles the events and circumstances leading up to and following the explosions. The book, by Bill Minutaglio, was an engaging read. There have been other recorded accounts through the years; here are some additional internet sources if you’d like to read more:
NOTE: I briefly mentioned that following World War II Nazi scientists were recruited by the United States. This Thursday I will review the book Operation Paperclip, the code name given to the project which brought some of the most notorious scientists in the world to live among the people they sought to destroy in World War II.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!
© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.