66 YEARS AGO IN APRIL...THE 1947 TEXAS CITY DISASTER
The Texas City disaster was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history. The incident took place on April 16, 1947, and began with a mid-morning fire on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp which was docked in the Port of Texas City. The fire detonated approximately 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate and the resulting chain reaction of fires and explosions killed at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City Fire Department.
The French-owned vessel, carrying explosive ammonium nitrate produced during wartime for explosives and later recycled as fertilizer, caught fire early in the morning, and while attempts were being made to extinguish the fire, the ship exploded. The entire dock area was destroyed, along with the nearby Monsanto Chemical Company, other smaller companies, grain warehouses, and numerous oil and chemical storage tanks. Smaller explosions and fires were ignited by flying debris, not only along the industrial area, but throughout the city. Fragments of iron, parts of the ship's cargo, and dock equipment were hurled into businesses, houses, and public buildings. A fifteen-foot tidal wave caused by the force swept the dock area. The concussion of the explosion, felt as far away as Port Arthur, damaged or destroyed at least 1,000 residences and buildings throughout Texas City. The ship SS High Flyer, in dock for repairs and also carrying ammonium nitrate, was ignited by the first explosion; it was towed 100 feet from the docks before it exploded about sixteen hours later, at 1:10 A.M. on April 17. The first explosion had killed twenty-six Texas City firemen and destroyed all of the city's firefighting equipment, including four trucks, leaving the city helpless in the wake of the second explosion. No central disaster organization had been established by the city, but most of the chemical and oil plants had disaster plans that were quickly activated. Although power and water were cut off, hundreds of local volunteers began fighting the fires and doing rescue work. American Red Cross personnel and other volunteers from surrounding cities responded with assistance until almost 4,000 workers were operating; temporary hospitals, morgues, and shelters were set up.
The work of identifying bodies continued through mid-June of 1947, carried out by the Houston Identification Bureau, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Vic Landig (the chair of the city's Burial Committee), Judge G.P. Reddell, and citizens of Texas City. Probably the exact number of people killed will never be known, although the ship's monument records 576 persons known dead, 398 of whom were identified, and 178 listed as missing. All records of personnel and payrolls of the Monsanto Company were destroyed, and many of the dock workers were itinerants and thus difficult to identify. Almost all persons in the dock area-firemen, ships' crews, and spectators-were killed, and most of the bodies were never recovered; sixty-three bodies were buried unidentified. The number of injured ranged in the thousands, and loss of property totaled about $67 million.
The disaster brought changes in chemical manufacturing and new regulations for the bagging, handling, and shipping of chemicals. More than 3,000 lawsuits involving the United States government, since the chemicals had originated in U.S. ordnance plants, were resolved by 1956, when a special act passed by Congress settled all claims for a total of $16.5 million.
As a result of the Texas City Disaster, quality control officials implemented new standards for the transportation and dispersal of ammonium nitrate. In addition to cool temperatures, new regulations required specialized containers for storage and prohibited ammonium nitrate from being stored near other reactive materials. Travel over long distances was discouraged, and overseas transfer of the substance was highly restricted.
The Texas City Disaster also influenced attitudes toward disaster planning across the country. It was obvious that there was a need for a more proactive approach to disaster planning. Many also noted that a centrally-coordinated emergency response effort might have been beneficial in the early hours of the disaster. As a result, refineries in the Texas City area formed the Industrial Mutual Aid System (IMAS), a cooperative endeavor in which they agreed to help each other out in the event of a disaster. Refineries in industrial zones across Texas followed suit.
At the time of the disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not exist, nor was there another government system in place to provide monetary aid to disaster victims who had lost their homes, possessions or means of making a living. With this in mind, U.S. Representative Clark Thompson of Galveston introduced legislation to Congress that would provide compensation to disaster victims to help them rebuild their town and their lives. The bill passed in 1955. It allowed about seventeen million dollars to be distributed to almost 1,400 claimants. The Texas Legislature also agreed to rebate municipal and school taxes in Texas City for three years following the disaster, in an effort to stimulate an economic recovery in the area.
The Disaster left an indelible mark on the city, but the people of Texas City proved resilient. In 1962, the city transformed the anchor from the Grandcamp — blown away from the ship and buried in the ground near the Texas City Railway Terminal in the explosion — into a memorial for the disaster.
Texas State Historical Association
Moore Memorial Public Library, Texas City