Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Texas City Disaster
The Texas City Disaster of April 16, 1947, started with the mid-morning fire and detonation of approximately 17,000,000 pounds (7,700,000 kg)of ammonium nitrate on board the French-registered vessel S.S. Grandcamp in the port at Texas City, Texas. It also triggered the first ever class action lawsuit against the United States government, under the recently enacted Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), on behalf of 8,485 victims.
The Grandcamp was a recently salvaged, 441 foot (134 m) long Liberty ship, christened the Benjamin R. Curtis in Los Angeles in 1942, that served in the Pacific theatre and mothballed in Philadelphia after World War II. In a Cold War gesture, it was assigned to the French Line to assist in the rebuilding of Europe. The ammonium nitrate in the two ships, and 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 S.S. Highflyer (or High Flyer in some reports), was another ship in the harbor, about 600 feet (200 m) away from the Grandcamp. The Highflyer contained an additional 2,000,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 4,000,000 pounds of sulfur.
The chemical, used as fertilizer but also in high explosives, was manufactured in Nebraska and Iowa (not at the nearby Monsanto or Union Carbide plants) and shipped to Texas City by rail before being loaded on the Grandcamp, adjacent to a cargo of ammunition. At 09:10, less than one hour after a small, persistent fire was reported on board, the vessel detonated, causing great destruction and damage to the port, and killing hundreds of people. People in Galveston, Texas, 10 miles (16 km) away were dropped to their knees by the blast. 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 the ship's almost 14,000,000 pounds (6,350,000 kg) of steel into the air at supersonic speed.
The Highflyer was severely damaged and ablaze; its crew attended to 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 Highflyer 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 Highflyer also blew up, demolishing the nearby S.S. 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 United States 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 Pearl Harbor and 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, and no identifiable parts were ever found. This figure includes all 28 firefighters who were at the ship 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 numbers of travelers. Paradoxically, some survivors were as close as 70 feet (21 m) from the dock.
Over 5,000 people were injured, of which 1,784 were admitted to twenty-one area hospitals. Wings of sight-seeing airplanes flying nearby were sheared off. Over 500 homes were destroyed and hundreds of others damaged, leaving 2,000 homeless. The seaport was destroyed and many businesses were flattened by the blast or consumed in the fires. Over 1,100 vehicles were damaged or destroyed, 362 freight cars obliterated — the initial property damages were estimated in hundreds of millions of dollars.
A seismologist in Denver, Colorado, initially interpreted the shock waves as an atomic bomb explosion in Texas. The explosion was so large that Strategic Air Command briefly raised the United States defense level (Defcon) in fear of a nuclear attack. The 3,000 pound (1,400 kg) anchor of Grandcamp was hurled 2 miles (3 km) and was found in a 10 foot (3 m) crater. It now rests in a memorial park. Massive amounts of burning wreckage ignited everything within miles, including dozens of huge oil-storage tanks and other chemical tanks. The nearby larger metropolis of Galveston, Texas, was covered with an oily miasma which left black deposits all over everything.
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 industrial facilities close to the point of the explosions. The entire twenty-eight member volunteer fire department was vaporized after a futile attempt to extinguish the fire on the first ship. It was the worst firefighter tragedy in the 20th century. More firefighters died at one time than had ever died in any previous fire in the nation. 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 various cataclysmic events were still burning a week after the disaster and the process of body recovery took nearly a month. All that remained of the four fire engines of Texas City were twisted and burned.
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. It was known to be extremely dangerous in large quantities. In 1921, a depot of 9,000,000 pounds blew up in the German city of Oppau, killing over 1,000 people in the largest man-made disaster in German history. Three years later, 9,600,000 pounds exploded in Nixon, New Jersey. In 1941 an explosion of 300,000 pounds killed 100 people in Tessenderloo, Belgium. In 1944, ammonium nitrate detonated in Milan, Tennessee, at a bomb-making plant, killing four.
The 35% ammonium nitrate in Texas City 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 would increase its chemical activity. Longshoremen reported the bags were warm to the touch, and the flames seemed to begin deep within the pile of bags. Experts suggest the fire was consistent with conditions for spontaneous combustion, although suspicions of sabotage were also examined by federal investigators. There were also reports of crackling gunfire inside the ship just prior to the massive detonation.
Hundreds of lawsuits were filed as a result of the disaster. Many of them were combined into Elizabeth Dalehite, et al. v. United States. 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.
- Official Texas City description
- Handbook of Texas entry
- History of the explosion, from Firefighter local union
- The Explosion 50 Years Later, Texas City Still Remembers
- Details of local destruction, including the ruin of a railroad
- Supreme Court opinion, Dalehite v. U.S., 1953
- Minutaglio, Bill; City on Fire; 2003, Harper Collins Publishers, ISBN 0-06-018541-4
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