On the way to Galveston, where we boarded Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas for our annual cruise vacation, as always we made an overnight stop in Texas City.
“The All American City by the Bay,” as Texas City is billed had an unusual origin. Apparently, three duck hunters in 1891 noted that a location along Galveston Bay, known locally as Shoal Point, had the potential to become a major port.
The duck hunters were three brothers from Duluth, Minnesota, who formed a syndicate, raised lots of money from investors and bought 10,000 acres of Galveston Bay frontage, including Shoal Point. And they named the area Texas City.
But without doubt, what overshadows all the memories, good or bad, is what has become known as the Texas City Disaster – the Grandcamp ship explosion which triggered the worst industrial disaster in America at the time which resulted in the largest number of casualties in America.
The morning of April 16, 1947 dawned clear and crisp, cooled by a brisk north wind. Just before eight o’clock in the morning, longshoremen removed the hatch covers of hold 4 of the French ship Grandcamp as they prepared to load the remainder of ammonium nitrate fertilizer cargo on top of the 2,000 tons that were already on board.
Several longshoremen went down into the hold waiting for the first pallets of the 100 pound packs to be hoisted from the dock. And then someone smelled smoke and a plume was seen rising between the cargo holds and the ship’s hull. Neither a gallon jug of drinking water nor the contents of two fire extinguishers seemed to do much good. As the fire continued to grow all efforts to extinguish it failed and the call for help went out to the Texas City Fire Department and to Galveston for a fire boat.
A half hour later, growing pressure from compressed steam fed into the hold blew the hatch covers and a thick column of orange smoke lifted into the morning sky.
Around 9 a.m., flames erupted from the open hatch, and 12 minutes later the Grandcamp exploded. A huge mushroom cloud rose more than 2,000 feet in the morning air, the shock wave shearing off the wings of two light planes flying overhead, a thick curtain of steel shards slicing through the workers along the docks and the crowd of curious passersby. Fragments of the Grandcamp, some weighing several tons, showered down throughout the port and town, bombarding building and storage tanks at nearby refineries, ripping open pipes and tanks of flammable liquids, starting countless fires.
The blast leveled nearly 1,000 homes and buildings, while 1,100 cars were damaged and 362 freight cars were obliterated. People in Galveston, 10 miles to the south, were thrown to the pavement, windows were shattered in Houston 10 miles to the north and the shock was felt 100 miles away in Louisiana.
Some 600 people were killed, including 27 firefighters of Texas City’s 28 member volunteer fire department. More than 5,000 were injured in total.
But the disaster was not yet over. The Grandcamp explosion ignited ammonium nitrate in the nearby cargo ship High Flyer. After crews spent hours attempting and failing to cut the ship from its anchor, 15 hours after Grandcamp exploded, the High Flyer also blew up, demolishing the nearby SS Wilson B. Keene ship.
The cause of the initial fire onboard the Grandcamp was never determined, but it is believed that it may have started by a discarded cigarette the previous day, which meant that the ship’s cargo was smoldering throughout the night.
The anchor of the Grandcamp and one of the propellers from the High Flyer that was blown off and found almost a mile inland now stand at the Texas City Memorial Park, a mute testament to the destruction that took place 67 years ago.