On April 16, 1947, Texas City, Texas became home to one of the worst accidents in America’s history. The S.S. Grandcamp cargo ship exploded in the Texas City port, killing more than 550 people and creating an unexpected calamity among those living and working in the area. Although the explosion itself was a shock, the proceeding turmoil could have been predominantly avoided. Based on the peacetime and wartime uses of ammonium nitrate, the Texas City Disaster of 1947 demonstrates the government’s negligence in its disaster preparation methods; one cannot not merely place blame at the hands of those onboard the ship because in reality, the government was simply unprepared for such a disaster. Government officials knew how explosive ammonium nitrate was, but they were still ill prepared for the trauma that hit Texas City. This idea has even repeated itself in more recent disasters such as the explosion of a fertilizer facility in West, Texas in 2013, and consequently, shows how the government remains unprepared amidst public turmoil. By analyzing the responsibility behind the Texas City Explosion, the public can have a better understanding of the carelessness of the government and the role that it plays before and after disasters occur.
Background and the Event Itself Edit
Texas City was originally established for its major port located in the southwestern area of Texas. Between 1900 and 1930, both the state and federal government systems and local companies helped the city grow to become one of the central ports in the United States, mostly by the construction of refineries and tank farms. As World War II ended, Texas City saw itself continuing to prosper, and in order to meet demands, agencies continued to further industrialize the area. However, an explosion that nearly wiped out the city interrupted its exponential growth.
The S.S. Grandcamp, a French freight ship, rested in the docks of Texas City in Galveston County after making a stop to pick up ammonium nitrate fertilizer—nothing out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, around 8:30 a.m., the ship exploded and barely16 hours later, the S.S. High Flyer, a vessel docked nearby, also caught fire and created yet another massive explosion that only unleashed the preceding damages. No one is 100% sure what caused the disaster, but the conditions of the ship clearly enabled it. Once the fire sparked in the hold where 2,300 pounds of synthetic fertilizer had been loaded, the captain apparently tried to force steam into the enclosure in an attempt to extinguish the flame, but this only increased the temperature and aided the nitrate combustion. At the time of the explosion, two chemical plants, three oil refineries, and an oil tank farm (a facility set aside for the storage of oil), along with many other industries, were all within close proximity of each other, making this disaster hardly a surprise. Virtually all homes, businesses, and warehouses located in the area were demolished, as well as the Monsanto Chemical Company. In this chemical plant alone, 145 of 450 shift employees were killed instantly. According to a radio dispatcher’s log, a fire was reported at 8:37 a.m., and only 42 minutes later, the police declared an emergency; this exhibits the rapid escalation of the disaster. Despite the fact that no central disaster organization had been established by the city, Red Cross and local volunteers began to take action against the turmoil, but by the end, over 550 were killed and thousands were injured. This entire catastrophe became known as the Texas City Disaster and even today, is considered to be more powerful and deadly than modern events of international terrorism.
As far back as 1800, scientists have considered nitrogen to be an essential component to the environment, however, it is difficult to be efficiently broken down by plants unless in the form of nitrate. To solve this problem, Carl Bosch and Fritz Shimon Haber discovered the procedure for extracting ammonia from a hydrogen and nitrogen compound; their breakthrough was formulated into the Haber-Bosch Process and changed nearly every aspect of the world. Once this efficient process was unveiled, the first ammonia-producing plant opened in Oppau, Germany in 1913, and thus resulted in huge crop yields and a slight boost to the economy. Not long after the plant opened, “the role of ammonia synthesis changed in just a matter of months from producing fertilizers to sustaining Germany’s munitions industry.” The film about Shimon Haber gives a great display of the usage of this process for military purposes. Germany’s defeat in the Battle of Marne in 1914 created lost hope that only explosives could revive. Following this World War II battle, the world truly saw the rampant shift in ammonium nitrate from a peacetime to wartime material. Given that ammonium nitrate can be used to benefit agriculture as a fertilizer and also to benefit countries as an explosive in war, one can assume that the chemical compound would be extremely regulated. Judging by the Texas City Disaster, this was not the case.
Blame—what the public turns to as soon as a disaster occurs—is often unsettling and complicated. In periods of disorder, people make judgments pertaining to who or what caused such a disaster, and simultaneously, they will determine who is responsible for cleaning up the mess; this is the correlation between causation and blame. Regarding the Texas City Disaster, the public either blamed one of two circumstances—the Grandcamp crew’s carelessness or the government’s negligence. It is easy to say that the ship’s captain made a mistake in handling the ammonium nitrate or that a crewmember’s cigarette started the fire, but in reality, more evidence suggests that different levels of the government induced the explosion and its devastation.
One of the fundamental elements to this blame is the fact that the government knew (or should have known) how disastrous the nitrate compound was. In fact, almost half of the United State’s nitrate imports in 1900 were used solely to create explosives. Ammonium nitrate was even involved in multiple explosions prior to 1946. The 1921 Oppau Plant Explosion, for example, consisted of the denotation of ammonium nitrate and sulfate that killed over 500 people and ruined part of the popular German fertilizer plant. While these circumstances are slightly different than that of the Texas City Disaster, one still cannot deny the devastating powers of ammonium nitrate that were previously known. According to an issue of The Cleveland Plain Dealer published two days after the disaster, “the charred ruins of Texas City stand as a reminder to industry everywhere that no safety measures dare be ignored.” Clearly, the public felt as if their safety was overlooked, and indeed it was.
In 1947, the Texas City harbor was composed of many industries packed closely together. These businesses consisted of highly explosive tank farms and chemical plants that did nothing other than to act as fuel for the fires that erupted from the Grandcamp. If such explosive chemicals were being transported, especially to industrial-dense and risky areas like Texas City, one would think that more regulations would be in place. In addition, homes that were located as far as two miles from the explosion still suffered damages from the initial reverberations and were even pierced by debris. In the same instance, the government should have avoided placing homes and schools in such a close distance to major industries.
Continuing on the topic of regulations, most forms of disaster preparation were absent in regards to the state and federal government. According to Paul Bellamy in The Plain Dealer, “the greater part of the 15,000 inhabitants of Texas City [went] trudging off to other communities in search of food, shelter and medical care.” Few documents and records prior to 1947 show evidence of government preparation or response plans aside from local fire and police departments, thus leaving nonprofit organizations to step up. One exemption to this is the Moore Memorial Public Library’s digital exhibit of the Texas City Disaster. The exhibit claims that groups such as the Army, Marines, and Texas National Guard immediately responded with aid. This is important because in newspaper articles and photos detailing the event, there is not the slightest indication of this occurrence; yet, the Red Cross, fire department, and police personnel appear quite often. To briefly further the claim that the government was ill prepared, Texas City actually lacked a functioning hospital in 1947. Overall, additional documentation or accessibility to Texas City records would have provided a much more sufficient basis when analyzing the regulations in place prior to 1947. Nonetheless, this lack of documentation even points to the negligence in Texas City’s preservation of records, which has created blanks in its history.
Based on documentation, it is easy to conclude that the explosive powers of ammonium nitrate were overlooked because of how important fertilizer had become for not only the United States, but also the entire world. The synthesis of ammonium from hydrogen and nitrogen provided population advances, increased the agricultural yields that were sustaining the world’s economy, and was even been considered more fundamentally significant than inventions such as planes, television, and aeronautic innovations. Therefore, the U.S. and Europe put forth a great deal of effort to produce such an essential material, and consequently, they were too focused on the benefits of fertilizer to tend to its explosive powers. There is also an issue concerning the United States’ economic and wartime status prior to the Grandcamp’s explosion. Supplies were in such a high demand for the military that “the national government established the new industry wholly with federal funds and almost entirely in the South; 41 percent of the synthetic rubber industry’s capacity stood in Texas alone.” It is unlikely that these efforts to produce wartime supplies were completely abandoned once the war was over, so one can infer that Texas’s government was more concerned with its industry and economics than providing regulations for ammonium nitrate fertilizer—a mistake, to say the least.
Interpretation of Primary Source #1 Edit
Many photos taken after the Texas City Disaster are aerial views illustrating the infamous coal-black smoke or desolate city that most people associate with the event itself. In one such photo taken by a staff member of The Houston Press on the day of the accident, the Texas City lies amidst its barren ruin after the explosions. The Houston Press was a daily newspaper known for its vivid and risqué stories, as well as those that criticized Houston’s politicians. Therefore, there is no clear explanation for the newspaper’s intention of the photo other than to entertain its readers—a common motive among media groups. Also, the photo was taken right after the damages and ensures a fresh, non-biased perspective, but unfortunately, there is no accompanying story to provide much detail.
Upon first seeing this aerial view of Texas City, one may simply be attracted to the deserted area and the overall turmoil that The Houston Press successfully captured. While this does portray the extent of the damages, it also provides an excellent example of how the layout of the city itself contributed to the turmoil. In addition to the photo of destruction itself, many different businesses are labeled, including a propane tank, Texas City Terminal general offices, a grain elevator, the Humble Tank Farm, and Sid Richardson Oil Co. There is clearly too much industry located within only a couple miles of the city, creating an extremely hazardous area whether the explosion occurred or not. For example, if the Sid Richardson Oil Company blew up, the city could still have seen a similar disaster. In this case, the state and local governments should have been more cautious when expanding Texas City’s industry in the early 1940s, and the federal government should have stepped in to enforce safer zoning of homes and industries.
In a deeper analysis of the image, there is a concern that the press was more interested in the industrial morbidity than the actual death of hundreds of workers and residents. The concept can be understood because of Texas City’s strong dependency on its port’s businesses since its original establishment in the early 1800s. While this may also be an excessive inquiry, The Houston Press’ industry-centered portrayal of the accident could easily offend those who survived the disaster or lost their loved ones.
Interpretation of Primary Source #2Edit
Two days after the initial ship explosion, on April 18th, The Cleveland Plain Dealer updated the public about the recent U.S. tragedy in its “Texas Disaster” article. The Plain Dealer, a local Cleveland newspaper, was known to favor Republican ideals at the time the story was published, and it wasn’t until 1963 that it shifted to more Democratic attitudes. However, throughout the years, the paper itself did not appear to present extremely skewed news except when directly writing about certain politicians of the time.
“Texas Disaster” offers a very sympathetic summary of the ammonium nitrate fertilizer blast. The writer, presumably the newspaper’s editor, Paul Bellamy, captures the dramatic memory with a strong use of imagery: “Men and women at work were killed without warning when the city was enveloped in flames and smoke that rose high into the sky and blacked out the sun. Boys on bicycles, people in their automobiles were killed by flying steel and mortar.” The fact that people died “without warning” and “boys on bicycles” were killed by the whirlwind of ship and building fragments among the dark atmosphere simply creates a cringing recollection. While imagery highlights the overall annihilation and its effect on the average local, select pieces of detail emphasize the government’s lack of preparation for such a disaster.
Like many stories written about the explosion, this piece only mentions the Red Cross, the fire department, and policemen when it comes to disaster response. Few sources, if any, have referred to federal and state programs when describing the available assistance in Texas City after the accident, and the only strictly local forms of aid that are referenced include the fire and police departments. Bellamy describes resourceful “individuals and organizations such as police, fire, and Red Cross” as “doing all that is humanly possible to relieve the stricken area.” This is instrumental in the fact that few plans were made to aid citizens in the event of a disaster such as the Texas City Explosion.
One disagreeable excerpt from the article is the concluding statement in which Bellamy states, “…the charred ruins of Texas City…remind individuals also of the train of disaster that sometimes follows minor carelessness.” “Minor carelessness” would be an extreme understatement in this case. Approximately 2,3000 pounds of a substance used to make TNT, a densely industrialized area, and hardly any regulations or planning quite literally combine to make a recipe for disaster, not just “minor carelessness” as described by Bellamy.
Photographs and first hand accounts are among the many pieces of history that shape the memory of an event, but there are many instances where some groups of people or ideas are not accounted for. During the Texas City Disaster, the majority of men on the S.S. Grandcamp were killed, as well as almost the entire local fire department. Among these men was the Texas City Volunteer Fire Department’s chief, Henry J. Baumgartner whose body was never recovered after the explosion. If he were able to retell his memory of the tragedy leading up to his death, he may have recounted it as follows:
“It was pretty early in the morning. I remember checking some of the equipment around the station like I usually do when I get there. I’d been waiting to hear back from that new Governor Jester. I probably sent him twenty letters the past two years. We needed new equipment. Especially the pumps and trucks. People kept telling me I was wasting my time. “You could put out these fires with a gardening hose,” they told me. But I could tell our stuff was getting too old…anyways…
The boys were smoking and yelling over some card game as usual. Around 8:30, we got a call, loaded up the trucks and headed toward the harbor. Lots of people say they get that “gut feeling” that they know somethin’ bad is about to happen, but that didn’t happen with me. It seemed like every other day. I remember seeing my daughter’s friend Forrest across the street at Lucas’s…Forrest Walker. Must’ve been waiting on the bus…anyways…When we got to the docks people were sort of calm…but they looked really stressed out. Then we all split up and a few of us went back to the station for more equipment.
Then things got bad. Really bad. The first thing was the noise…God it was so loud I thought I went deaf at that moment. The truck was lifted and slammed back down on the ground. We kept going. Black smoke. The black smoke started creeping over the harbor warehouses. We went straight toward the docks. Everyone was running away from the harbor. Screaming, ‘The vessel blew up.’ Hell, I didn’t even know what ship it was or who was on it at the time. Except it was loaded down with that ammonia fertilizer stuff. Everyone was yelling about that too. We had to slow down…the black smoke covered every inch of the earth.
And the smell. The smell was unlike anything I’d smelled before. A mix of chemicals and tons of melting plastic…a really strong smell like some kind of laboratory. That’s the only way I can describe it. Now that I think about it, that stench might’ve been a mix of Monsanto’s, which blew up, and all that stuff on the ship.
I was sweating…bad. Texas City was like a fiery hell. I swear the temperature went from 70 to 100 degrees in seconds. Fire was everywhere. Then there were the dead bodies. That’s when it really hit me. Thank God the kids were in school and Christine was off on the other side of town. I don’t know what I would have done if…
We got as close to the explosion as we could. I was trying to pull the wounded out from under charred, black wood and metal…Gasoline…it reeked. The smells were so strong it burned all our eyes. I remember yelling out orders, but I don’t even know what I was saying. All I could think about were my boys at the edge of the dock. I said a quick prayer for em’.
Another blast. This time I actually saw a propane tank shoot into the air far behind the Terminal’s general offices. Who in the hell put so many propane tanks that close together?
I was running up closer to the docks and spotted this concoction of railings…looked sort of like a jungle gym…then I realized it was one of our trucks. Burned down to the framework. My stomach sank. Sank all the way to my feet. I still get that feeling when I think about it…
Where is help?? I couldn’t believe it. There were more dead people than there were of us volunteers. Where were the other departments? Galveston should’ve been there in no time. Finally I saw a longshoreman I recognized—Julio Luna. I’d seen him around the docks when we were called in for small engine misfires in the area, so I stopped him and asked what happened with the ship. He was talking so fast, I hardly caught anything he said except that a fire started in the holds, and he tried using the ship’s equipment to put it out…none of it worked he said. I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that.
I don’t remember much of what happened from then on…things were too crazy. Those Red Cross volunteers started appearing and carrying bodies out. I looked up and was just about killed by a piece of flaming metal. I ducked. It hit the 1946 red Chevy next to me. A convertible. Just like Christine had been wanting. That car went up in flames. In all my years of working with the department, I’d never seen a car light up that quick. Someone yelled, ‘CHIEF! LOOK-’”
Changes Resulting from the Texas City Disaster Edit
Few regulation adjustments were immediately made after the disaster, but soon enough, the local and state governments made sure to administer changes in order to appease the American people. In 1951, the Texas Civil Protection Act authorized local and state officials to deliver disaster organization plans to civilians in the case of “emergencies threatening life and property”; this included response programs and aid. As far as ammonium nitrate fertilizer, its transportation and regulation became more controlled. One example incorporates storage containers that were designed to prevent other materials from coming in contact with the nitrate, but simpler methods such as regulating temperatures inside ships were also formed.
In addition, refineries in the area made an agreement to assist each other if another Texas City Explosion occurred. This pact was known as the Industrial Mutual Aid System and it would serve as a “centrally-coordinated emergency response” program for future disasters. Unfortunately the few changes that followed the explosion came too late. Four months later, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported an event involving the S.S. Ocean Liberty in France. A predictable incident had occurred; the ship, carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer, went up in flames and killed at least eight people and injured hundreds. It became apparent that not everyone was taking ammonium nitrate’s explosive abilities seriously. Nonetheless, the Texas City Explosion forced America to revaluate the ways in which life-threatening materials were transported and regulated.
1. Acts of God, Ted Steinberg: Steinberg’s book presents many ideas that are similar to those in the above sections. He tends to point blame at the government and analyzes the ways in which disasters, specifically hurricanes, could be avoided over the years. However, one difference between the overall arguments is Steinberg’s tendency to single out the poor and elderly as being most affected by the government’s actions. In the 1947 Grandcamp explosion, evidence did not favor any social groups; mothers, children, police chiefs, longshoremen, and factory workers all lost family or their own lives in the turmoil.
2. The Cholera Years, Charles E. Rosenberg: In sections of The Cholera Years, Rosenberg evaluates the government’s changes in health standards and response methods after the 1832 cholera epidemic. The Texas City Disaster is similar to this based on the changes in government response and regulations of ammonium nitrate that followed both incidents.
3. The Great Explosion at Faversham
 Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office, “Firefighter Fatality Investigation,” West: Texas State, 2014, accessed November 30, 2014, http://www.tdi.texas.gov/reports/fire/documents/fmloddwest.pdf, 8.
 Benham, Priscilla, “Texas City, TX,” Handbook of Texas Online, June 15, 2010, accessed November 30, 2014.
 The History Channel, “Fertilizer Explosion Kills 581 in Texas,” The History Channel website, accessed September 11, 2014, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fertilizer-explosion-kills-581-in-texas.
 “1947 Texas City Disaster,” Moore Memorial Public Library, accessed on October 13, 2014, http://texascity-library.org/disaster/index.php.
 Pandanell, Mark, “1947 Texas City Disaster,” accessed December 1, 2014. http://www.local1259iaff.org/disaster.html.
 Bill Minutaglio, City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle, ix.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, ix.
 Smil, Vaclav, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001, 1.
 Ibid, 81.
 Ibid, 102.
 Ibid, 103.
 Havel, Gregory, “The Texas City Disaster,” Fire Engineering, October 6, 2008, accessed on October 13, 2014, http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2008/10/the-texas-city-disaster.html.
 Smil, Vaclav, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, 47.
 Ibid, 111.
 Bellamy, Paul, “Texas Disaster,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, 18 April 1947, accessed September 11, 2014, http://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/ahnpdoc/EANX/126E772771DBD4F9/0D0CB581AB6F1535.
 Houston Press staff, “Texas City Explosion on April 16, 1947,” Rice University Digital Scholarship Archive, photograph, accessed November 30, 2014, http://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/36438.
 Minutaglio, Bill, City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle, 138.
 Bellamy, Paul, “Texas Disaster.” Cleveland Plain Dealer.
 “1947 Texas City Disaster,” Moore Memorial Public Library.
 Smil, Vaclav, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, XIII-XIV.
 Schulman, Bruce J. From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 98.
 “Houston Press," Handbook of Texas Online, June 15, 2010, accessed November 30, 2014, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/eeh05.
 Houston Press staff, “Texas City Explosion on April 16, 1947.”
 Benham, Priscilla, “Texas City, TX.”
 “The Plain Dealer,” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University and the Western Reserve Historical Society, accessed December 3, 2014, http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=PD.
 Bellamy, Paul, “Texas Disaster.” Cleveland Plain Dealer.
 “1947 Texas City Disaster,” Moore Memorial Public Library.
 Bode, Daniel, “Henry J. Baumgartner,” Find A Grave, accessed December 5, 2014, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=65381807.
 “Downtown Businesses Before the 1947 Texas City Disaster,” The Portal to Texas History, 2006, photograph, accessed December 5, 2014, http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth11841/?q=disaster%20lucas.
 Minutaglio, Bill, City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle, 266.
 “Clouds of smoke over the business district after the 1947 Texas City Disaster,” The Portal to Texas History, 2006, photograph, accessed December 5, 2014, http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth11819/?q=disaster%20smoke.
 “A Victim of the 1947 Texas City Disaster,” The Portal to Texas History, 2006, photograph, accessed December 5, 2014, http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth11765/?q=disaster.
 Bode, Daniel, “Henry J. Baumgartner.”
 “A Damaged Fire Engine After the Explosion in the 1947 Texas City Disaster,” The Portal to Texas History, 2006, photograph, accessed December 5, 2014, http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth11755/.
 “Texas City Disaster Survivor Julio Luna Jr,” YouTube video, 7:52, posted by Galveston County Daily News, April 16, 2010, accessed November 29, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-DtARKwvQ4.
 “Rescue Workers Take A Break During the 1947 Texas City Disaster,” The Portal to Texas History, 2006, photograph, accessed December 5, 2014, http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth11794/?q=disaster%20red%20cross.
 McGill, William L, “How a State Prepares for Disaster,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 309 (1957): 89-97, accessed September 10, 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1031938, 89.
 “1947 Texas City Disaster,” Moore Memorial Public Library.
 Kernan, Edward, “Ship Blows Up at Brest; 8 Are Known Dead,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 29, 1947, accessed on September 12, 2014, http://docs.newsbank.com/s/HistArchive/ahnpdoc/WHNPX/12D12F12CAFC2A10/0D0CB581AB6F1535.