Saturday marked the 75th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Texas City Disaster, the deadliest industrial accident in United States history. All told, 581 people died and thousands more were injured after a ship — the S.S. Grandcamp — caught fire and its load of fertilizer with ammonia nitrate and other chemicals exploded, causing a cascade of explosions up and down the coast of Texas City, igniting refineries and leveling entire city blocks.
Dozens gathered at Memorial Park in Texas City to remember those lost and reflect on how the city was able to rebuild from such devastation. Mayor Dedrick Johnson said to outsiders, it may have looked like a city with such promise had been utterly destroyed.
“But it did not destroy us. That is the message I want to leave you with today — a message of rebirth,” he said. “The community came together to rebuild one building and one block at a time. We witnessed our community’s refusal to die.”
Johnson walked the crowd through the events of that morning, although most in the crowd did not need the history lesson.
In the days before the explosion, workers had loaded around 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer into several of the ship’s holds. As eight crew members began loading the last of the fertilizer bags the morning of April 16, they smelled smoke. After they were unable to put out the small fire with water, they closed the holds in hopes steam would douse the flames.
Instead, experts now believe the steam vapors may have liquefied the ammonium nitrate to produce nitrous oxide, and may have produced more oxygen that continued to feed the flames. The heat of the ship’s cargo soon reached 850 degrees, the temperature at which ammonium nitrate will explode.
Plumes of brightly colored smoke, flashing green, purple, orange and yellow, rose from the ship’s hull, drawing hundreds of onlookers. Workers in nearby industrial plants rushed to make sure their contents were safe if the fire spread.
The link above is to this Chron story from 2016, which goes into some more detail about the disaster. You should browse the photo archive from that event as well. Reading those stories, and the Wikipedia page, I was wondering what was done in response to the explosion. This is what I found, from that 2016 story:
The accident prompted more than 3,000 lawsuits against the federal government, because the ammonium nitrate came from U.S. ordnance plants. Congress resolved the lawsuits in 1955 by passing a special act that settled all claims for $16.5 million.
The accident also resulted in new regulations for the manufacturing and shipping of chemicals. The rules required specialized containers for ammonium nitrate and prohibited its storage near other reactive substances.
Still, 69 years later, the U.S. government is grappling with ammonium nitrate regulation.
Safety advocates called for the Environmental Protection Agency to add it to its list of dangerous chemicals that require companies to take greater safety measures after an explosion in West, Texas, in 2013 killed 15 people and injured 160.
But the agency did not add ammonium nitrate when it released proposed reforms earlier this year.
Guess it’s a good thing we don’t have big chemical explosions in populated areas anymore.