Worst U.S. Industrial Tragedy All but Forgotten
Mar 28, 10:32 am ET

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Half a century before Timothy McVeigh used ammonium nitrate to blow up a U.S. federal building in Oklahoma City, the same substance nearly wiped a place called Texas City off the map.

The explosion, believed to have been caused by an errant cigarette, was the worst U.S. industrial accident ever. It killed as many as 800 people and injured some 5,000, yet today is all but forgotten -- mostly, says the author of a new book on the subject, because no one wanted to remember.

In a blast so ferocious it knocked aircraft from the skies and rattled buildings hundreds of miles away, the French freighter Grandcamp, loaded with ammonium nitrate, exploded on April 16, 1947, while docked at Texas City on Galveston Bay 40 miles south of Houston.

The story dominated front pages across the nation for a few days, then faded from view.

Texas City was a long way from any major media centers and there was little television in those days, but what really put the tragedy on history's back burner was its timing, said Bill Minutaglio, author of the newly published "City on Fire," a detailed chronicle of the disaster.

The blast came at a time when the United States was flush from victory in World War II and intent on building the world in its own modernist image.

The Texas City disaster suggested that maybe the new world was not all it was cracked up to be. It was a message that few people wanted to hear.

"The nation wasn't ready to fully absorb and linger with a big, internal nightmare," Minutaglio told Reuters in an interview.

"This was a time when the 'age of chemistry' was unfolding, when corporations were suggesting that, through chemicals and petrochemicals many of the world's problems would be solved. After all, scientists had just won World War II by harnessing atomic energy.

"But then, this disaster suggested something was wrong with the so-called military-industrial complex in the United States. That it wasn't as efficient and safe as the government, scientists and business leaders led Americans to believe," he said.


Texas City was particularly representative of the new age of chemistry because it was one of the main centers for petrochemical refining and production in the country. The town of 15,000 on Galveston Bay was ringed with huge plants that took petroleum from the Texas oil fields and created new wonder products such as plastic.

Ammonium nitrate had a prominent place in the new world.

As Minutaglio writes, it was truly a wondrous substance -- a volatile explosive that had been used in Allied bombs to help win the war but also a potent agricultural fertilizer.

In the Cold War that followed World War II, U.S. president Harry Truman decided ammonium nitrate would be used to win the peace.

If countries were given the substance and used it to grow food for their people, they might be kept out of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, he reasoned.

So, war factories that had made ammonium nitrate for bombs were told to keep producing it, but this time for fertilizer to be given to U.S. allies.

And so it was that the Grandcamp was loaded with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate bound for France where it was to help grow food for western Europe struggling to recover from the war.

On the day of the blast, the substance caught fire in the Grandcamp's hull, most likely from a cigarette tossed in by one of the ship's crew, and sent an unusual orange and red smoke into the sky.


During the war, ammonium nitrate shipments had been carefully handled by a U.S. military fully aware of its explosive power. But in the post-war peace it was shipped through civilian ports and handled by civilians not told that the paper bags of fertilizer presented a special danger.

When the colorful smoke began circling into the sky and the fire department went to the ship, hundreds of people went to the docks to watch.

They had all gathered near the dock at 9:12 a.m. when the fertilizer exploded in a blast that one veteran war reporter likened to the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on the Japanese city of Nagasaki during the war.

The explosion was 300 times stronger than the ammonium nitrate truck bomb that anti-government extremist McVeigh ignited on April 19, 1995, in downtown Oklahoma City, destroying the Alfred P. Murrah federal building and killing 168 people.

The chaos that followed the 1947 explosion was something out of a Hollywood horror film.

The dead littered Texas City's streets and floated in Galveston Bay, while the wounded and lost wandered through the stunned town looking for help.

The first explosion was followed by others as nearby ships and oil tanks at the refineries ringing Texas City caught fire.

The blast damaged or destroyed thousands of buildings. The Grandcamp's 3,000 lb (1,361 kg) anchor was blown two miles away. It rests there still, a solemn memorial to the disaster.


In the end, no one really knew how many had died, but estimates ranged from 600 to 800. Many of the victims simply vanished in the blast, never to be seen again.

The tragedy was followed by a lawsuit seeking restitution from the U.S. government. The legal wrangling dragged on for years and finally ended with the Texas City victims getting a payment of $12,000 each.

Two years after the blast, Texas City banned ammonium nitrate shipments through its port on the grounds that it was too dangerous to handle.

Minutaglio, a longtime Texas newspaperman who earlier wrote "First Son," a biography of President Bush, was drawn to the story by the astonishing dimensions of the tragedy and the fact that it had been forgotten by most of the world.

But as he delved into it for two years, he came away most impressed by the heroism of the Texas City people in the aftermath.

In a scene not unlike those that followed the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, those who were not badly injured pitched in to rescue those who were and find the dead even as their town burned.

"The Texas City disaster taught us, yet again, how resilient ordinary people can be, how they define beyond any political notion of the word, what it means to be a patriot," he said.

"It taught us that ordinary folks often behave in extraordinary ways."