Tadpole's Outdoor Blog

October 14, 2012


Filed under: Neal Murphy — Freddie Keel @ 5:55 am






It was a Wednesday and I should have been in school, but I was at home ill and in bed.  I was eleven years old and in the fifth grade in San Augustine Elementary School, but there I was in my bed fighting off some illness and dozing off occasionally.  My Dad was at work in the Court House and mother was giving a permanent in her home beauty shop.

It was a warm spring morning, as I recall, and a bad day to be ill.  Suddenly I heard a distant rumble as if it were a clap of thunder.  The window in my bedroom rattled for a moment, then things went quiet again.  I peered out my window to see if a dark cloud was approaching, but nothing was in sight.  I looked at the wall clock and it reported the time as about ten minutes past nine o’clock.  It was  April 16, 1947. I wondered what I had heard from the South, and what could have rattled the window.  Seeing nothing, I lay back down on the bed and forgot about it.

When Dad came home for lunch he told us about a terrible explosion that had occurred in Texas City, Texas which was at least 175 miles to the south.  Unbelievably, I had heard the sound of the deadliest industrial accident in U. S. history, known as the Texas City Disaster.  We found out later that the accident took place on a French registered vessel, the SS Grandcamp, which was docked in the Port of Texas City.  The fire detonated approximately 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate with a resulting chain reaction of fires and explosions that killed at least 581 people.

Actually later investigations revealed that more than one ship had exploded that day.  The Grandcamp was a recently re-activated 437 foot long Liberty Ship.  It was originally christened the SS Benjamin R. Curtis in  Los Angeles in 1942 and had served in the Pacific theatre but was mothballed in Philadelphia after World War II.

During the Cold War, the ship was re-commissioned and assigned to the French Line to assist in the rebuilding of Europe.  Along with ammonium nitrate – a common cargo on the high seas – it was carrying small arms ammunition, machinery, and bales of sisal twine on the deck.

Another ship involved in the harbor was the SS High Flyer which was docked about 600 feet away from the SS Grandcamp.  The High Flyer contained another 961 tons of ammonium nitrate, and 3,600,000 pounds of sulfur.  The ammonium nitrate in both ships, and in an adjacent warehouse, were on its way to farmers in Europe.

Around 8:00 AM, smoke was spotted in the cargo hold of the Grandcamp while it was still moored at its dock. Attempts at control failed as a red glow returned after each effort.   Shortly before 8:10 AM, the Captain ordered his men to steam the hold, a firefighting method where steam is  piped in to put out fires in the hope of preserving the cargo.  Meanwhile, the fire had attracted a crowd of spectators along the shoreline, who believed they were a safe distance away.  Spectators noted that the water around the ship was already boiling from the heat, and the water touching the hull of the ship was vaporized into steam.  The cargo hold and deck began to bulge as the forces increased inside.

At 9:12 AM, the vessel detonated causing great destruction and damage throughout the port.  The blast sent a 15-foot wave that was detected over nearly 100 miles off the Texas shoreline.  The blast leveled nearly 1,000 structures on land, including the Monsanto Chemical Company plant.  The entire volunteer fire department of Texas City was killed in the initial explosion on the docks while fighting the shipboard fire.

The first explosion ignited ammonium nitrate in the High Flyer.  Crews spent hours attempting to cut the ship free from its anchor and other obstacles, but without success.  After smoke had been pouring out of its hold for over five hours, the High Flyer blew up demolishing the nearby SS Wilson B. Keene, killing at least two more people.  One of the propellers on the High Flyer was blown off and found over a mile inland.

The official death toll of this disaster was 581, with 63 bodies never identified.  Over 5,000 people were injured, with 1,784 admitted to twenty-one area hospitals.  More than 500 homes were destroyed and hundreds more damaged, leaving 2,000 people 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 total property damage was estimated at $100 million dollars.  That would equate to $983 million in today’s currency.

A positive result of the Texas City disaster was widespread disaster response planning to help organize plant, local, and regional responses to emergencies.  Within days of 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.

It is still a mystery to me how I could have heard the sound of the initial explosion some 175 miles away.  There may be other people in our county that heard it, too.  I would be interested in hearing from you.

*Thanks to Wikipedia On Line for details.


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