On the morning of April 16, 1947, a fire broke out in the hold of a cargo ship docked at the Port of Texas City. Crowds of spectators gathered to watch firefighters work and to watch oddly colored smoke plume from the ship. Then, in an instant, they and the ship were all blown to atoms in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions the world has ever seen. The blast started a chain reaction of explosions and fires that would become known as the Texas City Disaster of 1947.
Nearly 600 people died in the blast and during the two days of fiery carnage that followed, and some 3,500 more were injured. The incident still reigns as the deadliest industrial accident in United States history after 75 years.
Fighting Fire With Steam
Around 8 a.m., dock workers noticed smoke, vapors, and fumes coming from the cargo hold of the SS Grandcamp. It was a retired American vessel that served in World War II and was now assigned by the US to the French Line on a post-war goodwill mission to help rebuild France and other parts of Europe.
At the time, it was primarily hauling ammonium nitrate, an important component of many munitions during the war. With the war over, the cargo was headed to Europe for farmers to use as fertilizer. That morning, the SS Grandcamp’s hold was filled with about 2,300 tons of the fertilizer when it somehow caught fire.
Thick smoke billowed into the air over Galveston Bay. The captain gave the order to batten down the hatches and secure each with tarpaulins to allow steam to be piped into the ship, which was an effective firefighting method aboard ships at the time that minimized damage to cargo and kept the hold from filling with water. The Texas City Volunteer Fire Department gave the technique a go, expecting the effort to stop the blaze. It did the opposite (more on that in a moment).
With spectators gathered at what they believed to be a safe distance and firefighters working away, the Grandcamp exploded. The enormous blast produced a shockwave that was felt 250 miles away. Windows 10 miles away in Galveston shattered. The ship’s 40-member crew, hundreds of spectators, and 28 firefighters were killed instantly.
The explosion launched the ship’s cargo, on fire, some 2,000 to 3,000 feet into the air and hurled hunks of steel from the vessel at supersonic speed — and that ship was made from about 6,300 tons of steel. The blast was so tall that a small passing airplane was caught in the eruption. It fell from the sky, killing two.
Everything in the blast radius was destroyed. Nearly 1,000 buildings were leveled, including residential homes and businesses, along with the Monsanto Chemical Company plant. It was destroyed in another massive and fiery explosion that ignited oil refineries and chemical tanks along the waterfront.
The Grandcamp was also hauling a considerable amount of twine in bales, which was now in flames and raining down on the area. The ship’s 2-ton anchor was hurled 1.62 miles and was found in a 10-foot-deep crater near the Texas City Railway Terminal. The ship’s other 5-ton anchor was found 1/2 mile away.
All that flaming debris rained down through the massive fireball onto other ships docked at the pier and waterfront buildings that were still standing, igniting fires everywhere. Some of the flames were extinguished when a 15-foot mini tidal wave created by the blast slammed into the docks and flooded the area. But the destruction didn’t end there.
Some 16 hours later, a second major explosion occurred aboard the SS High Flyer. The ship caught fire earlier, and firefighters attempted to pour four streams of water on the vessel to douse the flames, but their efforts failed. When the fire reached the ship’s cargo of 961 tons of ammonium nitrate and 1,800 tons of sulfur, the SS Flyer was obliterated in another colossal explosion, adding to the death and destruction from the previous day’s blasts and fires.
How it Happened
How the blaze aboard the SS Grandcamp started has remained unknown these many years. The fact that the ammonium nitrate, packaged in paper sacks, was stored at higher than normal temperatures before being loaded onto the ship may have been a contributing factor. Longshoremen reported the bags were warm to the touch before they were loaded. The higher temps may have increased the chemical activity in the fertilizer.
The steam used in an attempt to douse the fire may have actually made the explosion worse. Ammonium nitrate is an oxidizer, which means it can burn without an external source of oxygen. It likely neutralized the extinguishing properties of the steam. However, the steam may have converted a significant amount of the ammonium nitrate to nitrous oxide, increasing the heat being produced and the pressure in the hold.
Aftermath of the Texas City Disaster
On April 17, 1947, Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright, then the Commanding General of the Fourth Army, told the New York Times, “I have never seen a greater tragedy in all of my experiences.”
He offered to provide any assistance the US Army could offer.
Mayor J.C. Trahan, a veteran of World War II who wore a Purple Heart medal thanks to wounds suffered from a German buzz bomb, said, “No buzz bomb could ever compare with what happened here.”
The Coast Guard initially reported survivors within the blast zone; however, the reports were disputed when rescue crews reached the general area.
“It had seemed impossible that anyone within the plant could have lived through the flaming death sowed by a two-day series of explosions and fires,” wrote a local Texas newspaper on April 18, 1947.
In addition to the 581 people who were killed, the devastation caused an estimated $100 million in damages. That’s well over $1.2 billion in 2021 dollars. The surviving 1,394 victims of the incident filed a class-action lawsuit seeking compensation.
Today, at Memorial Park in Texas City, artifacts and plaques honor those lost during this tragic accident. At the heart of the park is its centerpiece, the busted 2-ton anchor from the Grandcamp. In 1962, the anchor was transformed into a memorial (above). There is also a marble sculpture of an angel at the park honoring the firefighters who were killed in the Texas City Disaster and a small cemetery where 63 unidentified victims are buried.