On This Day

texas city disaster
Associated Press
Refineries and oil storage tanks of the Monsanto chemical plant burn in the waterfront area in Texas City, Texas, April 16, 1947.

On This Day: Ammonium Nitrate Explosion Devastates Texas City

April 16, 2011 05:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On April 16, 1947, a ship containing 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded, killing hundreds in Texas City.

Hundreds Die, Thousands Hurt in Texas City Disaster

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In 1947, the French-owned commercial ship Grandcamp, a former U.S. warship, arrived in the port in Texas City, located on Texas’ Gulf Coast, to receive a load of ammonium nitrate. On the morning of April 16, at approximately 8:00, a fire—possibly caused by a discarded cigarette—broke out in one of its holds.

The ship’s captain, fearing that the cargo would be ruined if the hold was flooded with water, ordered that the hatches be shut and steam be piped in. The steam only served to increase the heat of the fire; by 8:30, when firefighters began shooting water into the hold, the fire burned so hot that the water vaporized.

At 9:12, the temperature inside the hold reached 850 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate to explode. “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,” describes the Handbook of Texas. “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.”

The impact of the explosion knocked over people 10 miles away in Galveston, shattered windows 40 miles away in Houston and registered on a seismograph in Colorado. It knocked two planes out of the sky and “caused a fifteen-foot tidal wave that crashed onto the dock and flooded the surrounding area,” writes Texas City’s Moore Memorial Public Library.

“A reporter flying over the scene likened it to bomb destruction of European cities in the recent war,” wrote The Associated Press. “The mushrooming cloud of smoke that arose was described as resembling the aftermath of the atom bombing of Hiroshima.”
The 27 Texas City firefighters were all killed, along with many longshoreman, sailors and bystanders. Hundreds more were killed either in the initial explosion or one of the secondary disasters caused by the explosion. The military, local hospitals, the Red Cross and other organizations sent in relief, setting up temporary hospitals and shelters.

The danger was not over for Texas City, however. The High Flyer, a ship carrying 1,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, had caught fire in the aftermath of the Grandcamp explosion. It burned for the entire day as the area around it was evacuated; finally, at 1:00 a.m., it exploded, killing two, destroying a nearby ship and causing even more damage to the port area.

Lawsuit and Victims’ Aid

The blast killed at least 576 people, injured thousands more, and caused an estimated $67 million in property damage, according to the Handbook of Texas.

There were hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of victims; many of these lawsuits were combined into a single lawsuit, the country’s first class action lawsuit. The case, Dalehite v. United States, was decided in 1953 by the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government.

Though the victims lost the lawsuit, Congress passed a bill in 1955 that provided $17 million to nearly 1,400 claimants. The government also created new regulations on the storage, transportation and handling of ammonium nitrate in the years following the disaster.
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