Texas City Disaster

Texas City Disaster

The Texas City Disaster of April 16, 1947, started with the mid-morning fire and detonation of approximately 2,300 tons [Texas City, Texas Disaster] of ammonium nitrate on board the French-registered vessel SS "Grandcamp" in the port at Texas City, Texas, killing 567 people. It also triggered the first ever class action lawsuit against the United States government, under the then-recently enacted Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), on behalf of 8,485 victims.


The "Grandcamp" was a recently re-activated 441-foot-long (134 m) Liberty ship. Originally christened the SS "Benjamin R. Curtis" in Los Angeles in 1942, the ship served in the Pacific theatre and was mothballed in Philadelphia after World War II. In a Cold War gesture, the ship was assigned to the French Line to assist in the rebuilding of Europe. The SS "High Flyer" was another ship in the harbor, about 600 feet (200 m) away from the "Grandcamp". The "High Flyer" contained an additional 961 tons of ammonium nitrate [Texas City, Texas Disaster] and 3,600,000 pounds (1,800 tons) of sulfur. The ammonium nitrate in the two ships and in the adjacent warehouse was fertilizer on its way to farmers in Europe. The "Grandcamp" had arrived from Houston, Texas, where the port authority did not permit loading of ammonium nitrate.


The 32.5% ammonium nitrate, used as fertilizer and in high explosives, was manufactured in Nebraska and Iowa (at the nearby Monsanto and Union Carbide plants) and shipped to Texas City by rail before being loaded on the "Grandcamp", adjacent to a cargo of ammunition.

It was manufactured in a patented explosives process, mixed with clay, petrolatum, rosin and paraffin to avoid moisture caking. It was also packaged in paper sacks, then transported and stored at temperatures that increased its chemical activity. Longshoremen reported the bags were warm to the touch.

Around 08:10, a fire was spotted deep in the hold of the Grandcamp. Conditions within the hold may have allowed for spontaneous combustion, although suspicions of sabotage were also examined by federal investigators. The fire may have been caused by a discarded cigarette. As it progressed, there were reports of crackling gunfire inside the ship, consistent with the sound of the ammunition cargo exploding.

Shortly before 09:00, the Captain ordered his men to steam the hold, a firefighting method where steam is piped in to preserve the cargo. The heat from the steam caused the ammonium nitrate to break down into water vapor and nitrous oxide, producing more heat and leading to thermal runaway. Meanwhile, the fire had attracted a crowd of spectators along the shoreline, who believed they were a safe distance away. [http://www.faqs.org/docs/air/ttpyro.html]

At 09:12, the ammonium nitrate reached an explosive threshold of 850°F (454°C). The vessel then detonated, causing great destruction and damage to the port and killing hundreds of people. The tremendous blast sent a tidal wave surging over the shoreline, and set refineries on the waterfront on fire. Sightseeing airplanes flying nearby had their wings sheared off [ [http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1138.htm No. 1138: The Texas City Disaster ] ] . The blast caused people in Galveston, Texas, 10 miles (16 km) away, to drop to their knees. Windows were shattered in Houston, Texas, 40 miles (60 km) away. People felt the shock 250 miles (400 km) away in Louisiana. The explosion blew almost 6,350 tons of the ship's steel into the air, some at supersonic speed. Official casualty estimates came to a total of 567, but many victims were burned to ashes or literally blown to bits, and the official total is believed to be an underestimate.

The "High Flyer" was severely damaged and set ablaze, and its crew fought the fire until abandoning ship an hour later. Although other boats were in the area, tugboats weren't dispatched from Galveston until twelve hours after the initial explosion. The crews spent hours attempting to cut the "High Flyer" free from its anchor and other obstacles, but without success. After smoke had been pouring out of its hold for over five hours, and about fifteen hours after the explosions aboard the "Grandcamp," the "High Flyer" also exploded, demolishing the nearby SS "Wilson B. Keene", killing at least two more people and increasing the damage to the port and other ships with more shrapnel and fire.

Scale of the disaster

The Texas City Disaster is generally considered the worst industrial accident in American history. Witnesses compared the scene to the fairly recent images of the 1943 German bombing of ammunition ships in the harbor at Bari and the much larger devastation at Nagasaki. The official death toll was 581. Of the dead, 405 were identified and 63 were never identified. The remaining 113 people were classified as missing, for no identifiable parts were ever found. This figure includes all 28 firefighters who were aboard "Grandcamp" when it exploded. There is some speculation that there may have been hundreds more killed but uncounted, including visiting seamen, non-census laborers and their families, and an untold number of travelers. However, there were some survivors as close as 70 feet (21 m) from the dock. The victims' bodies quickly filled the local morgue, and several bodies were laid out in the local high school's gymnasium for identification by loved ones.

Over 5,000 people were injured, with 1,784 admitted to twenty-one area hospitals. More than 500 homes were destroyed and hundreds damaged, leaving 2,000 homeless. The seaport was destroyed and many businesses were flattened or burned. Over 1,100 vehicles were damaged, 362 freight cars obliterated — the property damage was estimated in hundreds of millions of dollars.

A 2 ton anchor of "Grandcamp" was hurled 1.62 miles and found in a 10-foot crater. It now rests in a memorial park. The other main 5 ton anchor was hurled 1/2 mile to the entrance of the Texas City Dike, and rests on a Texas shaped memorial at the entrance. Burning wreckage ignited everything within miles, including dozens of oil storage tanks and chemical tanks. The nearby city of Galveston, Texas, was covered with an oily fog which left deposits over every exposed outdoor surface.

Firefighting casualties

Some of the deaths and damage in Texas City were due to the destruction and subsequent burning of several chemical plants (including Monsanto and Union Carbide), oil storage, and other facilities near the explosions. Twenty-seven of the twenty-eight members of Texas City's volunteer fire department and three members of the Texas City Heights Volunteer Fire Department were killed after an attempt to extinguish the fire on the first ship in what was one of the worst 20th century firefighter tragedies. More firefighters died at one time than had ever died in any previous fire in the nation.Fact|date=April 2008 One firefighter, Fred Dowdy, who had not responded to the initial call, coordinated other firefighters arriving from communities up to 60 miles (100 km) away. Eventually two hundred firefighters arrived, from as far away as Los Angeles. Fires resulting from the cataclysmic events were still burning a week after the disaster, and the process of body recovery took nearly a month. All four fire engines of Texas City were twisted and burned hulks.

Other ammonium nitrate explosions

Ammonium nitrate is a well-known explosive commonly used in a 2/3 mix with TNT in aerial bombs. World War II was fought with ammonium nitrate explosives. In 1921, the Oppau explosion occurred: a depot of 9,000,000 pounds (4,100 tons) exploded in the German city of Oppau, killing 565 people in the largest man-made disaster in German history [http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Explosion_des_Oppauer_Stickstoffwerkes] . Three years later, 9,600,000 pounds (4,400 tons) exploded in Nixon, New Jersey. In 1942 an explosion of 300,000 pounds (140 tons) killed 100 people in Tessenderlo, Belgium. In 1944, ammonium nitrate detonated in Milan, Tennessee, at a bomb-making plant, killing four. In 1995 the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was carried out with a rental truck filled with about 5,000 lb (2.3 tons) of ammonium nitrate mixed with nitromethane, a highly volatile motor racing fuel.

See also Ammonium Nitrate Disasters.

Legal case

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed as a result of the disaster. Many of them were combined into "Elizabeth Dalehite, et al. v. United States", under the recently enacted Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). On April 13, 1950, the district court found the United States responsible for a litany of negligent acts of omission and commission by 168 named agencies and their representatives in the manufacture, packaging, and labeling of ammonium nitrate, further compounded by errors in transport, storage, loading, fire prevention, and fire suppression, all of which resulted in the explosions and the subsequent carnage. On June 10, 1952, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this decision, finding that the United States maintained the right to exercise its own "discretion" in vital national matters. The Supreme Court affirmed that decision (346 U.S. 15, June 8, 1953), in a 4-to-3 opinion, noting that the district court had no jurisdiction under the federal statute to find the U.S. government liable for “negligent planning decisions” which were properly delegated to various departments and agencies. In short, the FTCA clearly exempts “failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty”, and the Court found that all of the alleged acts in this case were discretionary in nature.

In a stinging dissent, three justices argued that, under the FTCA, “Congress has defined the tort liability of the Government as analogous to that of a private person,” i.e., when carrying out duties unrelated to governing. In this case, “a policy adopted in the exercise of an immune discretion was carried out carelessly by those in charge of detail,” and that a private person would certainly be held liable for such acts. It should also be noted that a private person is held to a higher standard of care when carrying out “inherently dangerous” acts such as transportation and storage of explosives.

According to Melvin Belli in his book "Ready for the Plaintiff!" (1956), Congress acted to provide some compensation after the courts refused to do so. (pp. 83-85.) The Dalehite decision was eventually "appealed" to Congress, where relief was granted by means of private legislation (Public Law 378, 69 Stat. 707 (1955)). When the last claim had been processed in 1957, 1,394 awards, totaling nearly $17,000,000, had been made.

External links

* [http://www.texascity-library.org/TCDisasterExhibit/index.html 1947 Texas City Disaster Web Exhibit from the Moore Memorial Public Library in Texas City]
* [http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0416.html#article Headline, NY Times, April 17, 1947, "Blasts and Fires Wreck Texas City of 15,000; 300 to 1,200 Dead; Thousands Hurt, Homeless; Wide Coast Area Rocked, Damage in Millions"]
* [http://texashistory.unt.edu/search/?q=Texas+City+Disaster%2C+1947&t=dc.subject Texas City Disaster, 1947 photographs] from the Moore Memorial Public Library, hosted by the [http://texashistory.unt.edu/ Portal to Texas History]
* [http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/TT/lyt1.html Handbook of Texas entry]
* [http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1997_1406386 The Explosion 50 Years Later, Texas City Still Remembers]
* [http://www.ezl.com/~fireball/Disaster20.htm Details of local destruction, including the ruin of a railroad]
* [http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=346&invol=15 Supreme Court opinion, Dalehite v. U.S., 1953]
* [http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g-m/moa/boards/grandcamp.pdf Report of the US Coast Guard]
* [http://www.local1259iaff.org/report.htm Joint report of Fire Preventions and Engineering Board of Texas & the National Board of Fire Underwriters]


* Minutaglio, Bill; "City on Fire"; 2003, Harper Collins Publishers, ISBN 0-06-018541-4

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