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How a Fertilizer Accident Led to the Deadliest Industrial Disaster in American History

Seventy years ago, Texas City was a little-known shipping port on the southeast coast of Texas. Then, some ammonium nitrate caught fire, two freighters exploded, and the town was changed forever.

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Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.

Houston, like most big cities, is kind of ugly when you get up close. Its history as a 20th-century oil boomtown means its buildings, by and large, are new enough that they feel antiseptic, but the city’s old enough that it’s started to decay in places. Because Houston has no zoning laws and was built for cars in a place where land was easy to come by, it grew quickly, organically, and out instead of up. It’s glass on concrete on asphalt, spread like chunky peanut butter over the landscape and dissected by a spiderweb of highways.

If you hop on one of those highways, I-45, and start driving southeast, eventually the landscape starts to peek out from under the blanket of urban development. Once you get out past the outer ring road, the landscape is dead flat, dotted by outlet malls, strip clubs, and the occasional tendril of marshland reaching in from the Gulf of Mexico. On sunny days the sky is a pure, almost distracting medium blue, the kind of sky that invites you to barrel down the ramrod-straight highway.

Along the way you’ll pass Clear Lake, home to the Johnson Space Center, and you’ll start seeing billboards for Galveston, the island town popular with 19th-century pirates and 21st-century beachgoers and cruise-ship enthusiasts. In between the two is the exit for a town called Texas City.

Sitting on Galveston Bay, Texas City is home to fewer than 50,000 people, a few oil refineries, and a sizable industrial port. Its streets are laid out on a grid, and like so many coastal towns across the country, if you get off the highway and keep driving, you’ll hit the water. Unlike in Houston, the buildings are low, mostly one- or two-story houses and businesses, and the waterfront is lined with trees to hide the refineries. By late morning on a weekday, the city’s quiet, and not a single one of the 22 parking spaces at Memorial Park is occupied.

Memorial Park sits on a two-acre plot at 29th Street and 25th Avenue, surrounded by a field, a housing development, and a doughnut shop. It houses some two dozen statues and markers arrayed around a sidewalk poured more or less in the shape of a pair of eyeglasses, and at the front of the park sit a ship’s anchor, painted white, and a fountain built around a white marble angel.

The anchor belonged to the S.S. Grandcamp, a French cargo ship, and was flung across the city in an explosion on April 16, 1947. The explosion claimed the lives of 27 of the city’s volunteer firefighters, to whom the marble angel was dedicated. Those firefighters were among the 576 fatalities in what came to be known as the Texas City Disaster, the deadliest industrial accident in American history.

During and after World War II, Texas City became a major industrial and shipping center on the Gulf Coast, thanks to its proximity to Houston and the presence of petroleum and chemical processing plants vital to the war effort.

Both wartime and postwar chemical-processing and shipping jobs made what had once been a sleepy shore town into a burgeoning industrial center. After Pearl Harbor, Monsanto Chemical Company (now Monsanto Co.) opened a plant in town that produced styrene for synthetic rubber. By 1947 the port of Texas City was serving 2,500 ships a year, and the population grew from around 5,700 residents in 1940 to more than 16,000 in 1950.

“We had so many people moving in so fast. We had two groups of school kids — one would go in the morning, then they would go home and the other would come in the afternoon, because we didn’t have enough teachers,” says Billie Powers, an assistant at the Texas City Museum. “We didn’t even have enough places for people to stay. People were renting floor space and sleeping in their cars. They were building houses as fast as they could go, but it was a boomtown after the war.”

One of the morning students was 7-year-old John Ferling, who grew up to become a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and wrote about the accident extensively in the February 1996 edition of American History.

“[A]t 9:12 a.m. I found myself staring out the window toward the school’s empty playground,” Ferling writes. “My reverie was disrupted by a blast that seemed to suck the air from our classroom then force it violently back upon us. The outdoors seemed to turn very dark, and inside all was chaos.”

The blast Ferling witnessed was the explosion of the Grandcamp, a French freighter that took on cargo from somewhere near the Monsanto plant. The Grandcamp was one of the famed Liberty ships, the mass-produced freighters and troop ships that ferried American goods and supplies across the Atlantic during World War II. It was moored alongside another Liberty ship, the Wilson B. Keene, and a C2-class cargo ship, the S.S. High Flyer, which was having its engine repaired while cargo was being loaded.

About an hour before the explosion, a fire started in the hold of the Grandcamp, possibly caused by a stray cigarette, as the Coast Guard investigation later revealed that no-smoking signs had been posted aboard the Grandcamp in French, but not in English, and that dockworkers and crew frequently smoked onboard, due to either ignorance or apathy. The fire could’ve been extinguished by use of the ship’s fire hoses, but the crew tried to put out the fire using fire extinguishers and jugs of water, then by evacuating the hold and filling it with steam to deprive the fire of oxygen. After that failed, the fire was too big to control by the time the Texas City Volunteer Fire Department arrived, and the captain, Charles de Guillebon, gave the order to abandon ship at 8:30 a.m.

The Grandcamp was equipped with at least two onboard fire hoses and a water pump, all in working order, but one of the Grandcamp’s officers — the first officer, according to the Coast Guard; de Guillebon himself, according to Ferling — ordered the crew not to use the fire hoses, for fear of spoiling the cargo.

That cargo was 2,341 tons of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN).

After the war ended, the chemical industry in Texas City shifted quickly to producing products that would be useful in peacetime, including FGAN. This is how a French ship came to be docked at Texas City; in the six months before the explosion, Monsanto had shipped more than 75,000 tons of FGAN, and some of it went to Europe to help restore farmland destroyed during the war, Ferling writes.

But one of the unintended aftereffects of the explosion of the Grandcamp was the discovery of another use for ammonium nitrate.

“Alfred Nobel had included ammonium nitrate in his original formula for dynamite, but the compound’s potential as an explosive in its own right was realized only after the Texas City tragedy,” Ferling writes. “A new grade of ammonium nitrate (ANFO), one in which it is mixed with fuel oil, became the most widely used substance for all commercial blasting in the U.S.”

On April 17, 2013, another ammonium nitrate fire in Texas made national news when the West Fertilizer Company plant outside Waco exploded, killing 15 and wounding more than 10 times that number.

ANFO has also become popular among terrorists in improvised explosive devices, most notably the one that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. That explosion killed 168 people and vaporized the facade of a nine-story building, damaging hundreds of buildings in the surrounding area, and the bomb responsible contained about two and a half tons of ammonium nitrate, diesel fuel, and nitromethane. Timothy McVeigh’s bomb was designed as a weapon, unlike the Grandcamp’s cargo, but it was also only about 0.1 percent the weight of the FGAN in the Grandcamp’s hold.

The FGAN in the hold of the Grandcamp wasn’t marked as hazardous because, even though ships carrying FGAN had caught fire and exploded before, the destructive power of ammonium nitrate was unknown.

University of Houston professor Hugh W. Stephens, in his book The Texas City Disaster, 1947, writes that even though a contemporary U.S. Army ordnance safety manual listed ammonium nitrate as a high explosive, “prevailing scientific opinion held that the fertilizer was inert and would not catch fire or explode under ‘ordinary conditions.’” In the civilian world, the dangers of the substance were either unknown or not widely discussed.

Once the fire started, conditions below the Grandcamp’s deck soon became extraordinary. FGAN was packed in a mixture of clay, petroleum, rosin, and parrafin and wrapped in a waterproof paper bag to prevent moisture from ruining the fertilizer on the trans-Atlantic voyage. These substances reduced the temperature at which ammonium nitrate would spontaneously combust. Ferling notes that some of the hundred-pound bags tore during packing, allowing the loose fertilizer to fall onto the zinc-coated bilge pipes in the Grandcamp’s hold. “Contact with zinc, an extremely reactive catalyst for ammonium nitrate, can produce exalthermal heating and eventually a fire,” Ferling writes.

And when the crew of the Grandcamp tried to fight the fire with steam and not water, the hold became precisely the kind of high-temperature, high-pressure vessel that accelerates the chemical reaction that led to the explosion.

The initial blast killed 34 of the 41 Grandcamp crewmen, the 27 firefighters (various reports place the strength of the Texas City Fire Department at between 27 and 30), close to 125 Monsanto employees, and hundreds of onlookers and bystanders. More than 20 percent of the nearly 600 dead were never found, and when bodies were recovered, staff at the segregated local hospitals frequently could not determine the race of the victims.

“[My grandfather] was a World War II vet, and he said Texas City was worse than anything he saw in the war,” said filmmaker and Houston native Jay Thames, whose grandfather worked in insurance in Texas City in 1947 and witnessed the disaster firsthand.

Two planes flying overhead were destroyed, and a column of smoke rose 2,000 feet into the air. The explosion broke windows as far away as Houston and registered on a seismograph in Denver. Almost every house within a half mile of the dock was destroyed.

The Texas City Museum has dozens of artifacts from the disaster, including a piece of the Grandcamp’s hull, but the eeriest is a clock stopped at 9:12 a.m., when the shock wave from the explosion broke it.

Frank Urbanic was a junior high student in Galveston in 1947, and when the Grandcamp was destroyed, he thought the shock had come from an explosion in the boiler room next door to his classroom.

“We went outside and watched an ominous cloud raining tar, oil, and soot on us,” Urbanic says. “In about 30 minutes, the sky over Galveston was completely covered in this black cloud. The sun was suspended there like a golden ball. I had a white shirt on that day, but it wasn’t white when I got home.”

The Coast Guard report estimates that at a half-mile radius from the ship, one piece of shrapnel landed every 2 feet, ranging in size from rivets to a 60-ton piece of the hull. Those “missiles,” as the Coast Guard investigators called them, killed onlookers and punctured pipes at the Monsanto plant, igniting fires fueled by gasoline and benzene, among other substances. Burning balls of twine, tossed into the sky during the explosion, landed all over town and started still more fires.

A 150-foot-long, 50-ton barge called the Longhorn II, carrying hydrochloric acid, was torn from its moorings and tossed 100 feet inland, resting at about a 90 degree angle from how it had been moored, wedged between a railroad bumper and the severed stern of the Grandcamp.

The Keene and the High Flyer were also torn free of their moorings and smashed together by the force of the explosion. With the High Flyer’s engines out of commission for repairs and the Keene’s damaged, they couldn’t move. The Keene dropped anchor and the two ships floated side by side. By 10:30 a.m., both had been evacuated.

Once the initial shock wore off, rescue and relief operations began quickly. The local telephone operators’ union, which was on strike the day of the explosion, returned to help.

“They came back to work and the side of their building came down,” says Powers, the museum assistant. “So they were standing there in the building with the side of it fallen down, still talking on the phone.”

In addition to the Red Cross and Salvation Army, Ferling writes that firefighters from Galveston and more than 40 other towns and cities and military bases came to help. Fort Crockett, an inactive Army installation on Galveston Island, was reopened — Urbanic said an Army colonel walked up to the gates with a pair of bolt cutters and broke the lock — and turned into a surgical hospital.

Urbanic, who went on to become an Air Force pilot and aeronautical engineer, was on-site because his Boy Scout troop was called in to help with the relief effort. He spent more than 20 years working on a book, We Were Prepared, about the role Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts played in the relief effort, based on his own experiences and interviews with other survivors.

While older scouts with first-aid training cared for the wounded, Urbanic ran telegrams, then helped out at the Fort Crockett hospital.

“The scouts got there before the main part of the Army got there from Fort Sam Houston, so I wound up carrying bedpans, blankets, and dead bodies,” he says. It was the first time he’d seen a dead body.

Urbanic speaks in a gruff baritone that sounds a little like the opening narration of Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around. He’s matter-of-fact, but his voice still carries an almost defiant pride when he talks about his troop’s contribution. Urbanic said his scoutmasters were mostly World War II veterans, and he and his friends — some of whom were in JROTC — had prepared mentally to go fight overseas if the war had lasted that long.

“The common thread I found during my interviews was that we were hardened and steeled by watching World War II movies, watching people being pulled out of rubble, cities being destroyed, buildings on fire, so our attitude was, ‘OK, it’s our turn. We’re going to war,’” Urbanic says.

Around 5 p.m., Urbanic and some of his fellow scouts left for Texas City to help closer to the site of the explosion.

“They’d issued us steel helmets with web belts, first-aid kits, canteens, and gas masks,” Urbanic says. “We got about half a block away, then the scout executive waved us back.” Urbanic spent the rest of the evening at Fort Crockett.

The scouts were turned around for a good reason. The Keane was carrying only flour, but the High Flyer had in its hold a large quantity of sulfur, along with 961 tons of FGAN. Around the time Urbanic and other scouts were making their way to Texas City, rescue workers discovered that the High Flyer was on fire.

By the time tugs arrived in the harbor to try to tow the High Flyer away from the shore, it was dark. The Grandcamp had exploded more than 14 hours before, and the High Flyer’s hold had been burning for more than five hours.

“Confusion among the surviving officials at the docks was understandable, but Coast Guard personnel had arrived before noon,” Ferling writes. “Their inexplicable inaction went uninvestigated in the subsequent Coast Guard inquiry.”

In any case, two tugs arrived around 11 p.m. and crewmen from Lykes Bros. Steamship Company, the New Orleans–based firm that owned the High Flyer, jumped aboard and tried to free it. They cut the anchor chain with an acetylene torch and ran a 10-inch hawser to one of the tugs, but in the nearly two hours before the smoke and fumes made it too dangerous to continue, the stricken ship didn’t move. At 12:55 a.m. on April 17, the area was evacuated. Fifteen minutes later, the High Flyer exploded.

Some people who witnessed both explosions said the second was more ferocious, Stephen writes, though because of the advance warning, only two people were killed and somewhere between 35 and 100 were injured in the destruction of the High Flyer. Stephens recounts the story of a Mrs. E.A. Anderson, who was standing in front of a plate-glass window a mile from the dock when the Grandcamp exploded, shattering the window. Anderson was treated for cuts to her back, the window was replaced, and by 1 a.m. she found herself standing by the same storefront when the High Flyer went up, once again shattering the window and causing her similar injuries.

Seventeen hours had passed from the discovery of fire on the Grandcamp to the destruction of the High Flyer, and somewhere between 550 and 600 people were listed as either killed or missing, depending on the source. Thousands more were injured or left homeless.

The Coast Guard inquiry, released in September 1947, concluded that the fire was caused by unauthorized smoking in the Grandcamp’s hold, and that the explosion could have been prevented had the ship’s crew fought the fire with hoses instead of steam.

The Texas City Disaster became the cause of the first class-action lawsuit ever filed against the U.S. government after the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946 stripped the government of sovereign immunity. Claims by 8,485 survivors were consolidated into Dalehite v. United States, which Judge T.M. Kennedy found for the plaintiffs in 1950. That judgment was overturned on appeal, first in the Fifth Circuit, then in the Supreme Court, which ruled 4–3 that the plaintiffs were not, in fact, entitled to sue. In 1955, Galveston’s U.S. representative, Clark Thompson, sponsored the Texas City Disaster Act, which provided for the judge advocate general of the Army to investigate around 1,700 claims. The bill was passed and 1,394 claims were awarded payouts totaling $17 million, on top of $32 million in private insurance claims.

In the weeks after the disaster, Texas City was the center of national media attention, and the likes of Frank Sinatra ran fundraising events to benefit the survivors. Even 20 years out, national papers like the Chicago Tribune ran stories to commemorate the anniversary of the disaster, but despite the unthinkable human toll, the Texas City Disaster remains a footnote in American history. The 70th anniversary generated little interest outside the greater Houston-Galveston area.

There are reasons Texas City has faded from the national consciousness. We remember Mount St. Helens because it’s not every day a volcano erupts on American soil, but deadly industrial accidents are quite common. It took place in a period of American history dominated by World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the space race, and it didn’t have much to do with any of them. While acts of terrorism like Oklahoma City, Columbine, and 9/11 left a lasting imprint on everyday American life, the legacy of the Texas City Disaster lies in class-action lawsuits and the safe transportation of fertilizer — not the kind of thing you think about every time you walk into a high school or an airport. Without an easy historical peg, Texas City faded away.

Thames is trying to bring back its memory.

“The first way you open up the story is by asking a question, which is, ‘Have you heard of Texas City?’ Ninety-five percent of the people you ask will say no. They don’t even know it’s an actual place,” Thames said. “From there you talk about how it’s the place where the largest man-made accident in U.S. history occurred.”

Thames became fascinated by his grandfather’s story and is developing a feature film about the disaster, which he hopes to shoot in late 2018.

“Ever since I was about 6, I can remember [my grandfather] telling the story to others, and it just captivating me, how this tree of a man would get emotional,” Thames said. “It was the only time I’d ever see him get emotional. I would always beg him to tell me the story of Texas City. He would do so, reluctantly at first, but as I got older, he’d tell me more and more details. The details got gorier and gorier, more and more horrific, and that was when he’d stop himself and check his emotions and he would say, ‘Maybe we’ll talk about that another time.’”

Thames is basing his film on his grandfather’s recollections, as well as documentary research and the accounts of other survivors.

“This movie appeals to everybody because it is imminent danger immediately threatening human survival,” Thames said. “That is, to me, where movies should live. They should be out on the edge, they should be evocative in every way they can be, and they should be powerful.”

Monsanto quickly rebuilt its plant, and though the harbor wasn’t completely clear of debris until 1949, the port reopened in two weeks.

“Everybody here lost a neighbor or a friend or somebody they went to school with, so it was horrific,” Powers says. “However, they pulled together like nobody had ever seen, working side by side, so that a few years later, when they went into integration, it was smooth here, because they prayed together that day, they worked together, they rescued people together, and it made this city bond together.”

“I tell the story with my head held very high, because I know that in some way I’m honoring [my grandfather] and what he always told me, which is that when the chips are down, humanity’s good,” Thames said. “When the shit hits the fan, people are going to help each other. That’s the way that humans are built, and that’s the big overarching message in this movie, and that was his message to me.”

There’s a resoluteness, Powers says, to a community that adopted the phoenix as its symbol. On the 50th anniversary of the Grandcamp explosion, a public fountain adorned with a large sculpture of a phoenix was opened in front of the convention center on Fifth Avenue.

It’s become an unfortunately appropriate symbol for Texas City, which has suffered disaster after disaster in the years since. In 1987, a chemical leak at a Marathon Petroleum Company facility released hydrofluoric acid into the air, sending 140 people to the hospital, with 900 more treated for respiratory and eye problems and 3,000 evacuated. In 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery killed 15 and injured 180. In 2008, Hurricane Ike swamped the city’s 5-mile dike, causing damage that took two years to repair.

Even so, the town remains an important Gulf Coast center of industry and trade, and an increasingly popular tourist destination, thanks to fishing along the dike and an amusement park under construction along I-45.

Every April, on the Saturday closest to the anniversary of the disaster, as many living survivors as can make it gather for a group picture in front of the museum on Sixth Street. Even schoolchildren who can remember the explosion are in their 70s and 80s now, but the most recent reunion drew about 150 survivors, Powers says, and survivors who are too old or ill to make it often write in to request a copy of the photo.

But on a Wednesday morning in June, Sixth Street is completely deserted, and the trees and small beige buildings that flank the road make the whole scene look like something out of a model train set, or a coming-of-age movie from the 1960s. The clamor of downtown Houston feels like something from another planet. To imagine this Dodger-blue sky scythed in half by smoke, raining fire, oil, and shrapnel across the city, is just about impossible.

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