The Tragic True Story of Texas City Disaster

In 1947, a fatal explosion happened at the port in Texas City, destroying the entire city. Some people, such as a seismologist in Denver, thought it was an atomic bomb, while others thought there was a nuclear attack. The explosion in Texas was caused by ammonium nitrate.

Burning warehouses on the coast during the Texas City Disaster.
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although this accident was worse than the Oklahoma City bombing, which used 2.5 tons of ammonium nitrate because over 2,500 tons exploded in Texas. Everything in the port was destroyed in the explosion, including buildings, warehouses, and oil storage tanks. Hundreds of people also died; here is how the tragedy happened in Texas.

Loading a Shipment of Fertilizer

The SS Grandcamp cargo ship left New York City for Newport News, Virginia, through the coast of North America. It then traveled to France and Belgium with stops at different stations to pick up cargo. The final cargo pick-up point was Texas City.

A photo of packaged fertilizer.
Photo By Krissy Krummenacker/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images

The cargo ship usually transported peanuts, tobacco, and small arms of ammunition. Tons of ammonium nitrate were meant to be shipped to European farmers. During the loading process, dockers realized that the ammonium nitrate fertilizer bags were warm, indicating increased chemical activity in the fertilizer.

Fire on the SS Grandcamp

The loading of the ammonium nitrate fertilizer bags was slow due to the rains. When the team came to complete the loading, there was a smell of smoke, and they soon noticed a fire. The crew used jugs of water to put the fire out without success.

The SS Grandcamp is in the port.
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A fire rescue team came to the scene, but the fire had spread too much. There were arms of ammunition in the ship, which could cause an explosion. The workers tried removing the boxes but pulled out only 3 of 16. Steam was pumped into the ship to put out the fire, but there were no positive results.

Heard From Miles Away

The ship’s temperatures reached 8500F, the ideal temperature for ammonium nitrate to explode. The fire was catalyzed by leaking fuel in the boat, and there was an explosion. The ship’s explosion was so loud and was heard 150 miles away. The cargo ship’s parts flew up to 3,000 feet in the air.

The aftermath of an explosion in Texas City.
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The explosion knocked down two small airplanes out of the sky and caused a 15-foot tidal wave, leading to floods in the area. Roofs were torn, buildings were flattened, and buildings burned down. A chemical company that was 300 feet from the port was destroyed.

What Caused The Disaster?

The cause of the fire is still unclear. There is a theory that a discarded cigarette might have caused the fire, but no evidence supports that. Chemical oxidizers can cause combustion if there are high temperatures, which might cause a fire. It has also been claimed that the fire might have been caused by fuel oil on the molten fertilizer.

The smoking remains of the Monsanto chemical plant in the aftermath of the Texas City Disaster.
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The residents of Texas received some compensation, thanks to US Congressman Clark Thompson, who sponsored the Texas Disaster Act. Over 2,000 claims were investigated, with over 1,400 of them being compensated. The total compensation was about $17 million. Refineries joined and formed an Industrial Mutual Aid System, and there were new standards on handling ammonium nitrate.