In this book, Hugh W. Stephens draws on official reports, newspaper and magazine articles, personal letters, and interviews with several dozen survivors to provide the first full account of the 1947 disaster at Texas City.
On April 16, 1947, a small fire broke out among bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the hold of the ship Grandcamp as it lay docked at Texas City, Texas. Despite immediate attempts to extinguish the fire, it rapidly intensified until the Grandcamp exploded in a blast that caused massive loss of life and property. In the ensuing chaos, no one gave much thought to the ship in the next slip, the High Flyer. It exploded sixteen hours later.
The story of the Texas City explosions—America's worst industrial disaster in terms of casualties—has never been fully told until now. In this book, Hugh W. Stephens draws on official reports, newspaper and magazine articles, personal letters, and interviews with several dozen survivors to provide the first full account of the disaster at Texas City.
Stephens describes the two explosions and the heroic efforts of Southeast Texans to rescue survivors and cope with extensive property damage. At the same time, he explores why the disaster occurred, showing how a chain of indifference and negligence made a serious industrial accident almost inevitable, while a lack of emergency planning allowed it to escalate into a major catastrophe. This gripping, cautionary tale holds important lessons for a wide reading public.
- 1. The Blasts
- 2. The Grandcamp
- 3. Chaos and Courage
- 4. Struggling for Order
- 5. The High Flyer
- 6. Aftermath
- 7. A Reckoning
The centerpiece of the Texas City disaster was the explosion of ammonium nitrate fertilizer on board two Liberty ships moored at the Texas City docks. What began as a small fire in the hold of the Grandcamp quickly escalated into a cataclysmic blast which disintegrated the ship, wreaking absolute havoc within a radius of 2,000 feet. in the confusion that prevailed throughout the remainder of the day, everyone overlooked the potential danger of fertilizer in the other ship, the High Flyer. The carnage was magnified when this ship exploded with equal fury sixteen hours later. Much more than mistakes fighting the fire on the Grandcamp was at issue. The event originated from complacency about hazardous materials; the close physical proximity of docks, petrochemical facilities, and residences; and an absence of preparation for a serious industrial emergency.
The morning of 16 April 1947 dawned clear and crisp, cooled by a brisk north wind. Just before 8:00 A.M., longshoremen removed the hatch covers on Hold 4 of the French Liberty ship Grandcamp as they prepared to load the remainder of a consignment of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Some 2,300 tons were already on board, 880 of which were in the lower part of Hold 4. The remainder of the ship's cargo consisted of large balls of sisal twine, peanuts, drilling equipment, tobacco, cotton, and a few cases of small arms ammunition. No special safety precautions were in force at the time.
Several longshoremen descended into the hold and waited for the first pallets holding the loo-pound packages to be hoisted from dockside. Soon thereafter, someone smelled smoke. A plume was observed rising between the cargo boards and the ship's hull, apparently about seven or eight layers of sacks down. Neither a gallon jug of drinking water nor the contents of two fire extinguishers supplied by crew members seemed to do much good. As the fire continued to grow, someone lowered a fire hose, but the water was not turned on. Since the area was fast filling with smoke, the longshoremen were ordered out of the hold.
While Leonard Boswell, the gang foreman, and Peter Suderman, superintendent of stevedores, discussed what action to take, the master, or captain, of the Grandcamp appeared and stated in intelligible English that he did not want to put out the fire with water because it would ruin the cargo. Instead, he elected to suppress the flames by having the hatches battened and covered with tarpaulins, the ventilators closed, and the steam system turned on. At the master's request, stevedores started removing cases of small arms ammunition from Hold 5 as a precautionary measure. As the fire grew, the increased heat forced the stevedores and some crew members to leave the ship. The Grandcamp's whistle sounded an alarm that was quickly echoed by the siren of the Texas City Terminal Railway Company. Despite a strike by telephone workers, Suderman, seriously concerned by now, managed to reach the Fire Department and then called Galveston for a fire boat.
It was now about 8:30. At this point, growing pressure from the compressed steam fed into Hold 4 blew off the hatch covers, and a thick column of orange smoke billowed into the morning sky. Attracted by its unusual color and the sirens, several hundred onlookers began gathering a few hundred feet away at the head of the slip. Twenty-six men and the four trucks of the Volunteer Fire Department, followed by the Republic Oil Refining Company fire-fighting team, arrived on the scene and set up their hoses. A photograph taken at approximately 8:45 shows at least one stream playing on the deck of the Grandcamp, which was apparently hot enough to vaporize the water.
Around 9:00, flames erupted from the open hatch, with smoke variously described as "a pretty gold, yellow color" or as "orange smoke in the morning sunlight ... beautiful to see:"' Twelve minutes later, the Grandcamp disintegrated in a prodigious explosion heard as far as 150 miles distant. A huge mushroomlike cloud billowed more than 2,000 feet into the morning air, the shock wave knocking two light planes flying overhead out of the sky. A thick curtain of steel shards scythed through workers along the docks and a crowd of curious onlookers who had gathered at the head of the slip at which the ship was moored. Blast overpressure and heat disintegrated the bodies of the firefighters and ship's crew still on board. At the Monsanto plant, located across the slip, 145 of 450 shift workers perished. A fifteen-foot wave of water thrust from the slip by the force of the blast swept a large steel barge ashore and carried dead and injured persons back into the turning basin as it receded. Fragments of the Grandcamp, some weighing several tons, showered down throughout the port and town for several minutes, extending the range of casualties and property damage well into the business district, about a mile away. Falling shrapnel bombarded buildings and oil storage tanks at nearby refineries, ripping open pipes and tanks of flammable liquids and starting numerous fires. After the shrapnel, flaming balls of sisal and cotton from the ship's cargo fell out of the sky, adding to the growing conflagration.
The sheer power of the explosion and the towering cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky told everyone within twenty miles that something terrible had happened. People on the street in Galveston were thrown to the pavement, and glass store fronts shattered. Buildings swayed in Baytown fifteen miles to the north. The towering smoke column served as a grim beacon for motorists driving along the Houston-Galveston highway, some of whom immediately turned toward Texas City to help. In Texas City itself, stunned townspeople who started toward the docks soon encountered wounded persons staggering out of the swirling vortex of smoke and flame, most covered with a thick coat of black, oily water. Many agonizing hours were to pass before a semblance of order began to replace the shock and confusion caused by this totally unexpected and devastating event.
As the surge of injured quickly overwhelmed the town's three small medical clinics, the city auditorium was pressed into service as a makeshift first-aid center. Within an hour, doctors, nurses, and ambulances began arriving unsummoned from Galveston and nearby military bases. Serious casualties were taken to Galveston hospitals and later to military bases and even to Houston, fifty miles away. State troopers and law enforcement officers from nearby communities helped Texas City's seventeen-man police force maintain order and assisted in search and rescue.
The horror was not yet over. As help poured into Texas City, no one gave much thought to another Liberty ship tied up in the adjoining slip. The High Flyer was loaded with sulfur as well as a thousand tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The force of the Grandcamp's explosion had torn the High Flyer from its moorings and caused it to drift across the slip, where it lodged against another cargo vessel, the Wilson B. Keene. The High Flyer was severely damaged, but many of its crew members, although injured, remained on board for about an hour until the thick, oily smoke and sulfur fumes drifting across the waterfront forced the master to abandon ship. Much later in the afternoon, two men looking for casualties boarded the High Flyer and noticed flames coming from one of the holds. Although they reported this to someone at the waterfront, several more hours passed before anyone understood the significance of this situation, and not until 11:00 P.M. did tugs manned by volunteers arrive from Galveston to pull the burning ship away from the docks. Even though a boarding party cut the anchor chain, the tugs were unable to extract the ship from the slip. By 1:00 A.M. on 17 April, flames were shooting out of the hold. The tugs retrieved the boarders, severed towlines, and moved quickly out of the slip. Ten minutes later, the High Flyer exploded in a blast witnesses thought even more powerful than that of the Grandcamp. Although casualties were light because rescue personnel had evacuated the dock area, the blast compounded already severe property damage. In what witnesses described as something resembling a fireworks display, incandescent chunks of steel which had been the ship arched high into the night sky and fell over a wide radius, starting numerous fires. Crude oil tanks burst into flames, and a chain reaction spread fires to other structures previously spared damage. When dawn arrived, large columns of thick, black smoke were visible thirty miles away. These clouds hovered over Texas City for several days until the fires gradually burned out or were extinguished by weary fire-fighting crews.
The Grandcamp's explosion triggered the worst industrial disaster, resulting in the largest number of casualties, in American history. Such was the intensity of the blasts and the ensuing confusion that no one was able to establish precisely the number of dead and injured. Ultimately, the Red Cross and the Texas Department of Public Safety counted 405 identified and 63 unidentified dead. Another 100 persons were classified as "believed missing" because no trace of their remains was ever found. Estimates of the injured are even less precise but appear to have been on the order of 3,500 persons. Although not all casualties were residents of Texas City, the total was equivalent to a staggering 25 percent of the town's estimated population of 16,000. Aggregate property loss amounted to almost $100 million, or more than $700 million in today's monetary value. Even so, this figure may be too low, because this estimate does not include 1.5 million barrels of petroleum products consumed in flames, valued at approximately $500 million in 1947 terms. Refinery infrastructure and pipelines, including about fifty oil storage tanks, incurred extensive damage or total destruction. The devastated Monsanto plant alone represented about $20 million of the total. Even though the port's break-bulk cargohandling operations never resumed, Monsanto was rebuilt in little more than a year, and the petrochemical industry recovered quickly. One-third of the town's 1,519 houses were condemned, leaving 2,000 persons homeless and exacerbating an already-serious postwar housing shortage. Over the next six months, displaced victims returned as houses were repaired or replaced, and most of those who suffered severe trauma appear to have recovered relatively quickly. What could never be made good was the grief and bleak future confronting more than 800 grieving widows, children, and dependent parents.
The fire that started in Hold 4 of the Grandcamp and the manner in which it was fought are typical of the way in which human error can initiate disasters. Mistakes occurred not only because safety at the docks was inadequate but also because officials were indifferent to the possibility of an industrial disaster and ignorant about the explosive potential of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Still, accidents initiated by human errors—even those committed in ignorance—do not become disasters unless they interact with surrounding circumstances in a way that quickly magnifies the scale and severity of harm. The remainder of this chapter addresses the most significant of these circumstances, some of which existed elsewhere in the country as well as at Texas City. Often called precursors, these circumstances facilitated escalation of the disaster once the fertilizer in the Grandcamp caught fire. One precursor was the presence of extensive petroleum refining and chemical production facilities together with large amounts of extremely flammable, explosive products stored at or near the waterfront. A second was the close proximity of docks and petrochemical facilities to each other as well as to part of the town's residential area. Still another was a mixture of cultural, psychological, and political attitudes held by responsible officials and the public; these helped sustain a general complacency about the possible dangers of a variety of chemical products passing through the port. Derived from this outlook was a fourth precursor—highly fragmented responsibility for safety at the waterfront and an absence of arrangements for coordinated response should a serious emergency occur. As the story unfolds, it will become apparent that this condition encouraged mutual ignorance about hazards among officials, hampered efforts to fight the fire on the Grandcamp, and became a major source of difficulty in coordinating response to the devastating effects of the ship explosions.
Texas City is located on the west side of Galveston Bay, about ten miles north of Galveston. Port operations began in 1893, and ocean-going vessels started calling at the docks in 1904. Access remained a problem for about ten years until a channel thirty feet deep and three hundred feet wide was dredged and a protective dike constructed to prevent silting. The channel was later deepened to thirty-five feet to accommodate larger ocean-going vessels. The port derived some benefit from the fact that the route from the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston Bay followed a straight-line course, and pilots were not required for ships calling there. By the close of World War I, port facilities consisted of three slips and two piers. After a serious fire in 1929, a large concrete two-story warehouse called Warehouse B was constructed, the grain elevator was modernized, and sprinkler systems were installed in most warehouses.
Land communications were also good. The Texas City Terminal Railway Company—hereafter called the Terminal Railway—was incorporated in 1921. It operated six miles of line connecting the docks to trunk routes of several major railways running between Houston and Galveston, which in turn provided access to markets and produce from the Midwest. As at many other ports at the time, there was no port authority; the Terminal Railway owned and operated storage and handling facilities located along a half-mile stretch of property on the west side of the turning basin. This meant the pattern of industrial development around the docks was set by the leasing policies of the Terminal Railway and the Mainland Company, the two principal landowners in the area. In addition to piers and warehouses for handling break-bulk commodities, several terminals for loading ocean-going tankers and coastal barges were constructed at the south end of the docks. Petroleum loading enjoyed the reputation of having good facilities and efficient service. Although break-bulk traffic provided a significant portion of the revenue, the port never had more than modest success as an outlet for midwestern agricultural products; consequently, transshipment of crude oil and other petroleum products constituted the greater share of the value of its traffic. When the Republic Oil Refining Company built a refinery in 1930, the town's second, Texas City began a rapid transition to an oil town. Four years later, Pan American Refining Corporation, a subsidiary of Standard of Indiana, built another refinery, this one capable of processing 25,000 barrels a day. During the mid-1930s other companies expanded their facilities, and more oil storage tanks appeared.
The preparation for war beginning in 1940 initiated an unprecedented expansion of industrial activity in this town of only 6,000 persons. That year, Carbide and Carbon Chemical Company constructed a large chemical plant for production of a wide variety of synthetic chemicals. Soon thereafter, a Seatrain intermodal terminal for transferring railway boxcars to ships was added, as well as a government-owned smelter to handle South American tin imports. The federal government's Defense Plant Corporation selected Texas City as the site of two of a total of eighteen alkylation plants and two of fourteen fluid catalytic cracking units built around the nation in anticipation of wartime demand for aviation fuel and lubricants. In 1942, this agency also took over an old sugar refinery located across the North Slip from Dock O and rebuilt it for styrene production, a key ingredient in synthetic rubber. The plant was purchased by Monsanto in 1946 and continued to manufacture styrene and associated products. In 1947, the Terminal Railway installed facilities for handling bulk liquid petroleum products at the South Slip.
By 1947, then, Texas City had become an important port on the Gulf of Mexico, with extensive petrochemical production, storage, and shipment facilities. Sharing in a national surge of oil-based chemical production which rose from one to five million tons during the decade of the 1940s, it was home to four major refineries, two aviation gasoline units, and two chemical companies. The refineries were capable of processing 150,000 barrels of oil daily. A cotton compress, grain elevators, and the Seatrain terminal were also part of dock operations. In 1946, the port cleared 3,907 ships and 13,441,000 net tons of cargo. Although nonpetroleum traffic was declining, a variety of items continued to cross the docks, including sulfur, cotton, flour and grain, tin ore and blocks of refined tin from the smelter, as well as bars of copper from Arizona and slabs of zinc from Oklahoma. The town was described as "young and thriving." Its population, swelled by migrants seeking work during a national recession, grew rapidly, reaching an estimated 16,000 persons by 1947. This figure could have been higher, but a housing shortage obliged many wage earners to live in nearby towns and commute to work.
Economic growth created the second precursor of disaster. Increased prosperity and additions to the work force were welcome signs of progress in Texas City. No one seems to have considered the possibility that additional refining and storage facilities might raise safety problems by an order of magnitude. In view of the disaster, it is ironic that this growth increased the town's vulnerability, because development had long been guided by a form of zoning. Following a plan instituted by early developers from Duluth, Minnesota, and supported by Hugh B. Moore, the town's most prominent businessman and booster until his death in 1945, separate areas were designated for industrial, residential, institutional, and commercial development. A zoning ordinance enacted in January 1946 made this practice official.
Unfortunately, zoning had negative consequences. The fact that refineries and tank farms were built immediately inland from the waterfront meant that these facilities and the tremendous quantities of hazardous materials were congregated in close proximity to each other as well as to the docks and the southern extremity of the town's residential area, where blacks and Hispanics lived. This dramatically increased the chance that a serious fire or explosion at or near the waterfront would initiate a chain reaction among facilities, with devastating effects on people and property. Although no consideration was given to its explosive quality, the potential for disaster increased even more when large quantities of ammonium nitrate fertilizer began to transit the port toward the close of 1945. Proximity meant the safe handling of fertilizer now affected not only those directly associated with the process—the Terminal Railway, stevedores, regulatory agencies, and masters of ships—but almost everyone and everything in the industrial area. The significance of physical proximity was not lost upon specialists who visited Texas City after the ship explosions. According to a staff report by the National Fire Protection Association, "The large loss of life occurred because of the immediate proximity of persons engaged in the industrial activity of the port and its exposed properties.... The huge property destruction occurred because of the direct exposure to blast damage of high-valued industrial plants and facilities." Thus, a key ingredient for disaster was in place: people and property with no explicit relationship to fertilizer shipments were now unknowing hostages to fertilizer's explosive power.
Refineries and chemical companies adhered to standard safety practices in their manufacturing processes. For instance, storage tanks were equipped with suppressant systems and surrounded by containment dikes. Nevertheless, distances between facilities were, more frequently than not, minimal.
The Atlantic Pipeline Company, Humble Oil, Stone Oil, Republic Oil, Monsanto Chemical, Southport Petroleum, eleven warehouses, nine piers, a grain elevator, and approximately twenty-five blocks of residences were all located within a one-mile radius of the North Slip (see Maps 2 and 4). Fire insurance specialists had estimated that not more than 20 percent of the industrial area of the terminal area and surrounding property was vulnerable to fire. But standard calculations and safety practices proved inadequate, because the ship blasts and resulting fires inflicted damage to about 90 percent of the area. Visiting Texas City shortly after the explosions, Rear Admiral F. D. Higbee, then warden of the Port of Los Angeles, professed himself mystified as to why industry was concentrated so close to the waterfront when more land was available."
Discussing why companies are often unable to cope with catastrophes, Ian Mitroff and Ralph Kilmann assert that the "culture" of organizations is a critical factor. In this context, culture denotes a mind-set, an orienta tion based on unwritten rules or tacit assumptions about the importance of seeking out threats and formulating tentative solutions in advance." While the major refineries and companies at Texas City adhered to state-of-the-art safety practices within their fence lines, general complacency resulted in an indifference to the possibility of a wide-scale industrial disaster, leaving the town vulnerable to surprise and unprepared to deal with a catastrophe. Assessing the impact of this factor is a fascinating but elusive subject, because there is no explicit information about perceptions of danger entertained by private sector managers, municipal officials, or agencies such as the Coast Guard, much less the public. Seemingly, employees at the refineries and chemical plants understood that they were under some risk, but these concerns were offset by pay and benefits. Local newspaper stories prior to the disaster reveal no evidence of apprehension about any kind of hazardous material. Similarly, none of the survivors I interviewed remember anyone expressing worry about the dangers of hazardous materials. The fact that several hundred citizens gathered at the head of the North Slip and watched the Grandcamp burn is mute testimony to this truth as well as to general ignorance about the explosive potential of the fertilizer. Although there is some evidence that a few persons knew better than this, a brief report written several years after the disaster was essentially correct in stating that "people in Texas City were not conditioned to explosions; but they were conditioned to disregard very real threats to life and property."
From today's perspective, it is difficult to understand why people living and working in close proximity to hazardous substances were indifferent to the possibility of catastrophe. Their "ethical perspective" about the value of human life was certainly as good as anyone's, for the disaster produced an energetic, compassionate response by citizens and their neighbors, even to the extent of setting aside racial conventions in what was then a segregated southern town. But one must also understand that the United States immediately after World War II was a different world insofar as hazardous materials were concerned. Chemicals had made a vital contribution to Allied victory in the recent war and to the local economy as well. Scientists were confident about their knowledge, and the products of technology enjoyed virtually uncritical acceptance. Far in the future were spectacular and disturbing events such as the near catastrophe at Three Mile Island, Bhopal's horrendous death toll, and the massive oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez. It was well into the 1960s before a diffuse but very real sense of dread about the risks of new technology coalesced around an emerging counterculture and a broad-based environmental movement. And only recently have the dangers of technological events begun to equate with natural ones in the public mind, even in communities where large quantities of hazardous chemicals are present. Not until 3,000 persons were killed at Bhopal and the 1986 Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act was passed did petrochemical companies expand their scope of awareness and planning to include adjacent communities. Even now, some question the total candor and realism of their actions.
Before the accident, Texas City's citizens felt secure because such a disaster had never happened and they could therefore assume it never would. From time to time, explosions and fires had occurred at refineries and tank farms, and fires had broken out on ships, but none had been really serious. The absence of any response plan for a major emergency by refineries, the Terminal Railway, and/or the municipal government suggests an important fact: nobody, neither private sector companies nor municipal agencies, was seriously concerned about an industrial disaster. In the words of one postmortem: "the people of Texas City had given little thought to industrial disasters nor had they taken their organization for natural disasters very seriously."
It is likely that Texas City's unprecedented prosperity also contributed to prevailing indifference about the possibility of an industrial disaster. At a time when most of the rest of the nation was mired in recession, Texas City was a boomtown. Judging by later experience, communities where the social and political environment emphasize growth at the expense of safety or social justice are especially susceptible to catastrophe. There is no evidence that a measurable part of the citizenry dissented from this perspective; although labor unions were active, matters concerning operational safety do not seem to have marred relations with management. Moreover, Texas City was basically a one-industry town where almost a third of the labor force was employed at refineries, oil terminals, or chemical plants.
Safety and Emergency Preparedness
The final precursor is the state of safety and emergency preparedness in and around the waterfront. Both were grossly deficient, considering the enormity of the dangers. Their inadequacy demonstrates that officials responsible for the safe transit of hazardous materials through the port were not sufficiently aware of possible hazards, and they had not instituted measures that would have reduced vulnerability to fire and explosion. Exactly who was culpable in this respect and to what extent is in fact a major concern of this study. Neglect had several ramifications, all of them bad. Not only were accidents more likely, but so was surprise. Without preparations, little chance existed that anyone could cope with the effects of an accident quickly enough to prevent it from escalating into a disaster, or that once begun, response would be effective enough to avoid its worst effects. Visiting Texas City soon after the disaster, a Los Angeles fire chief perceptively noted that "while there was no lack of succor for the victims ... the existence of a Disaster Plan would have speeded the organization of several agencies involved."
In a way, Texas City was not unacquainted with disaster. Early in its history the town received much of the force of the great hurricanes of 1900 and 1915 as they roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and into Galveston. In 1943, a smaller hurricane left considerable damage in its wake. This annual threat had prompted the Galveston chapter of the American Red Cross to draw up countywide relief plans that included Texas City. Nonetheless, a planning meeting of the town's own chapter in March had failed to attract much interest even among those who attended. In any case, hurricane plans were of limited value in alerting citizens to the threat of industrial emergencies and creating support for measures which would have been appropriate for the ship explosions. Many people perceive hurricanes as acts of God or forces of nature and therefore discount antecedent economic and social conditions, so important in influencing the outcome of industrial disasters. Moreover, while not preventable, hurricanes usually provide some advance warning, allowing those in the projected path to flee or take protective measures. As the chairman of the local Red Cross chapter later observed: "We weren't prepared for anything like this. In a hurricane, you have some warning and can get your organization ready. But we had no warning, and our organization was scattered all over town."
His statement hits upon an important truth—industrial disasters are different from natural disasters. Even when good safety measures are in place, it is impossible to predict exactly when explosions or fires will trigger an event. They happen with little or no warning and inflict most of their damage at the outset. This means that the quality of response is basically conditioned by whatever preparations are already in place, including contingency plans and designated resources. Because large amounts of highly flammable and explosive petrochemical products were stored in close proximity to each other and the waterfront, safety standards should already have been high. When ammonium nitrate fertilizer shipments began arriving in late 1945, these standards should have been reevaluated; however, they were not.
Safety and preparedness for industrial emergencies were also hindered by the fragmented nature of waterfront operations. Fragmentation derives from prevailing differences in skills, language, activities, and even perspective between maritime and landside environments. Such differences create an organizational "fault line" at the water's edge which obscures a common perception of hazards among the variety of organizations and hinders cooperation. Texas City was no different from other ports in this respect, but it lacked a port authority that encompassed both environments and had the capability to act quickly and effectively in an emergency. Terminal Railway officials were later to testify that company policy was to take no responsibility for safety aboard ships, even when they moored at the docks. As a result, nothing existed beyond personal friendships to facilitate cooperation between the Terminal Railway, the municipality, and neighboring refineries, allowing the situation to get quickly out of hand after the fertilizer on the Grandcamp caught fire. Many friendships disappeared in the holocaust which followed.
Not all the responsibility for poor safety practices belonged to the locals. Standards for handling hazardous materials at Texas City and other ports might have been better if governmental supervision over loading hazardous materials had been present. The lack of such supervision was a critical shortcoming. During World War II, the federal government had hurried "a staggering array of hazardous materials, products, and processes" into production, including styrene for synthetic rubber and highoctane aviation gasoline, both produced at Texas City, and ammonium nitrate as well. Where risks of shipping and storing such materials were known to be high, military authorities successfully instituted and supervised strict standards for safety and security. The record was excellent: in fact, 50 million tons of explosives were conveyed by rail during World War II without any loss of life directly attributable to transportation problems. But little thought was given to transportation safety when military supervision was curtailed at the war's end and transport was transferred into commercial channels. Several months after the disaster, the Coast Guard's Merchant Marine Council concluded that this lapse in supervision was a contributing factor to the accident. "This lack of familiarity with the regulations," stated the council, "may be due to the fact that the regulations became effective just a few months before the war and that during the war, the loading of ships was in the main supervised by military personnel." While this statement is accurate up to a point, it is critically incomplete. What the council neglected to mention was that the Coast Guard itself, in charge of administering Admiralty law, was responsible for filling the gap in supervision but had not done so.
Much has been learned about industrial disasters since 1947. Along with an expanding body of knowledge about the dangerous qualities of chemical compounds and new technology, the safety of hazardous materials production and transportation has been enhanced by means of comprehensive regulations. In the past ten years or so, private sector associations and government agencies have raised safety standards and added elaborate requirements with respect to contingency planning, response, and recovery. But disasters involving hazardous chemicals still occur, and often do so with devastating consequences. While this account may provide some perspective on other disasters, its focus is upon what happened at Texas City. The examination is oriented around several key questions never even raised by the U.S. Coast Guard board inquiring into the Texas City disaster and barely mentioned, if at all, by fire and insurance investigators. First, how did an accident in the form of a small fire in a ship escalate into an explosion which killed or injured the equivalent of onequarter of the town's population and devastated a substantial portion of its industrial and residential property? Second, why did the explosion surprise so many of those on the scene? Third, were the explosions of the Grandcamp and High Flyer just a matter of "bad luck," as so many believed at the time, or, as has already been implied, did conditions at the docks leave the area ripe for serious trouble? Should not at least some officials responsible for transporting fertilizer have known what could happen? Fourth, why was the threat of the fertilizer on the High Flyer overlooked for almost twelve hours after the Grandcamp blew up? Fifth, what were the effects of a virtual absence of preparations for a large-scale industrial disaster at the docks and in the municipality?
“This is the best documented look at the Texas City disaster ever done.”
Robert B. Fairbanks, Associate Professor of History, University of Texas at Arlington