Thursday, April 16, 2015

Disaster In Texas


This blog was originally posted in 2010, but since today is the 68th anniversary and because I'm so fascinated with this horrific industrial accident, I'm running it again. The Texas City Disaster of 1947 remains today as the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history and the largest non-nuclear explosion on record. I hope you enjoy.

On the morning of April 16, 1947, Texas City, Texas earned the fateful distinction of hosting the largest industrial accident in U.S. history. French freighter, SS Grandcamp was loaded with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer destined for war torn Europe when the crew smelled smoke. Measures were taken to contain the fire, but it was no use. The ship was so hot the water vaporized on contact. The hatch covers buckled then blew off…golden orange smoke billowed from the hold. The ship’s explosion could be heard more than 150 miles away. Windows broke twenty-five miles away. Every firefighter from the Texas City Fire Department was killed. The intensity of the blast knocked two small airplanes out of the sky, the pilots killed on impact.

“I was about nine years old at the time. I remember hearing sirens day and night for two days straight. There weren’t any medical facilities in Texas City so the injured had to be brought to Houston. We didn’t own a television. Most of our news came from radio and word of mouth. I was curious and climbed a big tree in front of our Heights home. I saw a huge column of black smoke to the south that continued to rise for days. And that was over forty miles away. One story that’s always stayed with me was about a man having his head sheared off by a huge shard of flying glass. I have no idea if the story is true or not. One thing I know happened is the two ton anchor from the first ship was blown more than a mile away leaving a huge crater in the ground.” Harrell “Jerry” McRae, Huffman, TX



Businesses were destroyed. One hundred forty five workers at nearby Monsanto Chemical were killed. The explosion triggered a fifteen foot wave of water that pushed a steel barge ashore and also carried dead and injured people into the sea as it receded. Huge pieces of the ship rained down causing even more loss of life. Help began pouring in from Galveston and Houston.

“My neighbor and I worked for Hughes Tool at the time. Hughes had a first aid department with its own ambulance and my neighbor was the driver. People all over Houston wanted to send aid, so of course Hughes sent their ambulance to help with the injured. I lived off Lyons Avenue and Wayside in Houston, but I had a cousin who lived in Galveston. Her husband worked for the ship company and he was killed instantly when the ship blew up. She never did talk much about it. I went down there a year later with my brother. He had a sister-in-law who lived in Texas City. We were surprised at how quickly they had cleaned up and rebuilt in a year’s time.” Quinn Lansford, Porter, TX

The SS High Flyer was docked near the Grandcamp. It contained sulfur and one thousand tons of ammonium nitrate. Workers discovered a fire onboard. Tugboats tried frantically to move the vessel away from the docks. When the ship’s holds blew, the tugs cut their lines and fled. The High Flyer exploded at 1:00 am on April 17.


The Texas Department of Public Safety and the Red Cross counted over 550 dead. Estimates suggest that some 100 more were believed to be missing. More than 3,500 suffered injuries.

“I remember my mom crying and worried sick because both of her brothers worked at American Oil Company in Texas City. Fortunately they weren’t killed. When I worked at Dixie Pipe Sales the yard supervisor talked about being an ambulance driver down there. We heard all kinds of stories circulating about all the bodies and destruction. Of course we saw the pictures when the story came out in the papers.” Doyle Kendrick, New Caney, TX

It’s hard to believe that a single discarded cigarette is thought to have started the deadly chain of events. Stringent safety regulations were later put in place in hopes that an explosion of this magnitude would never happen again. We should all heed the words of philosopher, George Santayana, who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Even though more than sixty years have passed, memories of the pain and devastation continue to linger with those in our community who lived through…the Texas City Disaster.

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