April 16, 1947 saw one of the worst industrial and civilian disasters occur in Texas City, Tx.
During the morning of April 16, 1947 a seemingly fine rain of oily mist fell upon Galveston, Texas while in Houston a rumbling reminiscent of a small earthquake was felt. What the inhabitants of these cities didn't know at the time was that a giant explosion and fire had ripped though the booming town of Texas City.
As dawn broke upon Texas City that day its citizens began to enjoy what seemed to be a beautiful spring day. A short time later many would believe the end of the world was upon them. For many it was.
Anchored in the harbor of Texas City that morning was a cargo ship named the "Grand Camp." In its holds was tons of an ammonium nitrate fertilizer that was to be shipped to Europe. There has been much speculation over the years as to what caused the initial fire upon the Grand Camp but fifty-three years later there has been no definitive answer.
Texas City in 1947 was a booming town whose many residents worked in the nearby refineries and chemical plants. It also was a place with a small town air in which everyone was a friend with everyone else and each knew the business of the other. On April 16th word spread through out the community about the fire upon the Grand Camp and the "pretty orange color that was coming from the black smoke." As with any accident or fire a crowd of onlookers appeared to watch the Texas City firefighters in action. As word of the fire traveled, the crowd of onlookers grew in number.
The Grand Camp's crew and possibly the harbor crews knew that the ship was carrying the highly explosive ammonium nitrate but the crowds didn't or if they did, they were not aware of its highly volatile condition. Of course the standard procedure for dealing with a dangerously burning ship was to tow it by tug as far from the harbor as possible. For some reason this didn't happen and at 9:00a.m. "The Texas City Disaster" as it will forever be remembered happened.
At 9:00 there was an explosion and a giant column of black smoke rose approximately 2,000 feet into the air. A mere ten to fifteen seconds later a second explosion rocked the ship, which created a violent shockwave, and fire quickly engulfed the Monsanto Chemical Plant in flames due to broken gas lines and containers. Within these few seconds almost the entire Texas City Fire Department was killed as well as the hoards of civilians and children still standing near the docks watching the excitement.
The industrial complexes around the Texas City area were at that time (and still are) connected by pipelines that caused the fires and explosions at the Monsanto plant to quickly spread to the surrounding plants. As at Monsanto entire buildings collapsed trapping workers within the flaming inferno.
Although the shockwave caused a displacement of the water in the harbor and created a small tidal wave that washed inland over one hundred and fifty feet, it did little to save the people from the fires.
News of the explosion quickly spread to Galveston, Houston, Conroe, La Port and Pasadena. Firefighters and police officers from all these towns went to aid in the work at Texas City and by dusk the town was full of rescue workers. Ambulances from all over the area were making repeated trips to John Sealy in Galveston as well as Ben Taub and other hospitals in Houston.
By night though new fears arose as another ship, the "High Flyer" had been burning all day since the original explosion and word was reaching the workers and towns people that she was carrying sulfur and a cargo hold full of ammonium nitrate. All during the day tugs had tried in vain to move her, all to no avail.
The fear of another explosion didn't keep the rescue workers from removing the injured from the harbor and Montesano areas until 1:00 a.m. when all workers were ordered away. At 1:10 a.m. the High Flyer exploded with greater force than any by the Grand Camp.
As the High Flyer exploded she took another ship, the "Wilson B. Keene," with her. A concrete warehouse and a grain elevator went up in even more fires and explosions.
On April 16, 1947 the town of Texas City had 16,000 registered inhabitants but by the time the last body was found a month later, six hundred were known dead. The exact number will never be known as many of the victims were incinerated in the blast and there were no remains to be found.
My wife's father, William Brock was one of the first rescue workers from Houston to reach the scene on April 16th and can be seen in many of the Houston Post newspaper photos that showed scenes of the ruins and rescue work. He told stories of finding a shoe that still had the foot in it but no other part of the body was to be found. Another story told of how he came across a naked man who had been burned black over his entire body.
Mr. and Mrs. Brock both told how he, one of his brothers who was also with the Harris County Sheriff's Dept. and so many others worked for days in Texas City with little rest or food.
The explosions devastated the town of Texas City. Some reports say there wasn't a family in the town that didn't suffer in some way from the disaster, be it a family member's death, injury or even damage to their home or business.
The fires would continue to burn for a full week and of the six hundred dead, sixty-three would never be identified. Most of these were too badly burned for anyone to recognize them. For these unclaimed bodies, local mortuaries donated cypress caskets and on June 22, 1947 they were laid to rest by various pastors in the area in numbered grave that the city provided. Their pallbearers were members of the veteran's organizations, labor unions and volunteer firemen. Today there is a monument in honor of the dead.