Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Texas City Disaster – what really happened

The Texas City disaster occurred at 9:12 am April 16, 1947 when the SS Grandcamp, loaded down with munitions, sisal twine, jute, and ammonium nitrate exploded after a fire on board went out of control. In spite of firefighters' efforts to douse the fire, and the crew's attempts to contain the fire in the hold using steam and tarps, the ship exploded. In the blink of an eye, nearly the entire volunteer fire department, Grandcamp crew, bystanders, local residents, and employees at near by refineries were either killed or critically injured.

Businesses, residences, and schools were destroyed by the initial impact. In the wake of the explosion, a barge filled with hydrochloric acid washed on shore with a tidal wave of oily salt water. What was the shaft of the ship went skipping across the rail yard, ripping up rails as it went along. Its anchor was imbedded two feet into the ground almost a half mile away. There was panic in the streets as a wave of fear washed over the city that the enemy had attacked.

Bodies covered in sludge were loaded onto flatbed trucks and carried to John Sealy hospital in Galveston. Black or white, it did not matter. They would be sorted when their bodies were washed. A local garage was set up as a makeshift morgue where bodies were embalmed. The nearby Texas City High School gymnasium was used to store the bodies so that family members could be identified. There is the story of a woman who playfully colored her husband's toenails the night before identified his body by the color of his toes. The death toll grew so quickly that the backs of traffic tickets had to be used as toe tags.

As calm was slowly restored the city, there was fear of another explosion. The SS Highflyer and SS Wilson B Keane were on fire in the port as a result of flaming debris and their anchors were tangled with each other. The Highflyer cargo included ammonium nitrate, and the Keane was loaded down with flour and lumber. Attempts to untangle the two failed and both were towed out to sea. Around 1:17am, they were being towed, the Highflyer exploded. Businesses whose had been replaced after the initial blast shattered once again. For nearly two days, tank farms and refineries continued to burn.

On the morning of April 19, 1947, a community-wide memorial service was held for the dead. The remains of 63 unidentified victims were buried in a cemetery on the edge of the city. A marble angel stands guard over them today and each of the remains is marked with a small pink granite stone and a number engraved on each one. The final death toll is unknown, but estimates are that at least 576 people died, nearly 3000 were injured, and the cost of damage to residences and businesses was in the millions of dollars.

A sketch of a sailor’s tattoo was posted in the New York Times months later, and a reader was able to identify the person that way. Windows in Galveston shattered, buildings in Bay Town swayed, and in Denver, Colorado, the blast registered on a seismograph. People as far away as El Campo heard the blast as well.

Nearly ten years after the explosion, Elizabeth Dalehite's suit against the government was settled for more than a half million dollars. It took an act of Congress to get another half million or so for the rest of the victims' families.

Today, Texas City is a town of more than 40,000 people with oil refining as its top business. On Loop 197 stands the propellor of the SS Highflyer and a plaque commemorating the disaster. At the entrance to the Texas City Dike sits the anchor of the SS Grandcamp and a historical marker. On Loop 197 and 25th Street is the memorial park erected nearly fifty years after the disaster. For years it was just a simple reflecting pool with a marble angel standing over it. Today, it is surrounded by a circular walking path, pavilions, and memorials to the other victims of the blast.

On a personal note, this disaster touched the lives of many of my family members. My grandmother's brother worked in a doughnut shop. At the time of the blast, he was about to drop doughnuts into the fryer when his boss stopped him. The explosion rocked the shop, sending glass into the fryers and scalding him. It was said that nearly a cup of glass was removed from his back.

My great grandmother's sister had just finished having her house set back on its piers after the 1943 hurricane. In the blast, the house was once again knocked off its piers. Her daughter was a student at Texas City High School and was able to tell the authorities who was dead and who was still alive.

My grandfather was driving a truck at Union Carbide that was toppled by the blast. In Galveston, my where my grandmother lived, she said that ambulances had to tear up the esplanade to get to the hospital. Her sister hopped on a flatbed truck and went to man the switchboards, where operators were on strike at the time.

As a result of the disaster, mutual aid was implemented. Now, if there is a fire at any of the refineries, each of their fire departments will respond. It was first used May 30, 1978 during a fire at Texas City Refining. My parents to this day still talk about this accident. Their recollection of that fire is as clear as the recollection of many Texas City Disaster survivors. My family still talks about the mushroom cloud, the explosion, how the it rained debris from the fire, that barrels of oil were sent shooting into the air like rockets. I did my research and there were seven fatalities. The explosion was a result of two 55,000 gallon tanks that exploded as the result of a flash fire in a storage unit.

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