Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on May 1, 2012.

Fire Down in Texas
Two ships carrying ammonium nitrate explode in the worst industrial accident in U.S. history

NFPA Journal®, May/June 2012 

For a time, it seemed to the people of Texas City that all they did was go to funerals. So wrote Steve Olafson in the April 13, 1997 edition of the Houston Chronicle, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Texas City, Texas, explosion and fire, the worst industrial accident in United States history.

The disaster began around 8 a.m. on April 16, 1947, as a stevedore prepared to load ammonium nitrate from the Monsanto Chemical plant onto the SS Grandcamp, berthed nearby at the Texas City docks. When he entered the hold, which contained some ammonium nitrate that had been loaded the day before, as well as machinery, peanuts, and twine, he smelled smoke. Moving some of the cargo, he uncovered the fire and called for water, according to a report written days later by the Fire Prevention and Engineering Bureau of Texas and the National Board of Fire Underwriters. Two containers of water thrown on the blaze had no effect, so the stevedore tried to put it out using a soda-acid extinguisher. When that, too, failed, he called for a hose line. Before it arrived, however, he was told not to apply water, as it might damage the cargo.

By now, about half an hour had passed, and the stevedores abandoned ship. The fire department was called to the scene at around 8:30 a.m., and two trucks arrived, followed shortly by two  more trucks. Firefighters began laying hose lines and streaming water from the dock, but the ship’s hull was so hot by 9 a.m. that the water vaporized when it hit the deck.

Twelve minutes later, the ship disappeared in a tremendous explosion, destroying the dock, the Monsanto plant, and other buildings, as well as a number of oil and chemical storage tanks. The explosion also set fire to the SS High Flyer, which carried 2,000 tons (1,814 metric tons) of sulfur and 961 (872 metric tons) tons of ammonium nitrate.

Early that afternoon, tugboats made several unsuccessful attempts to move the High Flyer, according to the Fire Prevention Bureau’s report. At 10 or 11 p.m. they finally freed the ship, pulling it about 100 feet (31 meters) away before it, too, exploded.

The toll of the explosions and fire was enormous. Property losses were estimated at $67 million, and thousands of people were injured. Although the exact number of people killed will never be known, a monument to the victims notes that 576 people, 398 of whom could be identified, died. Among them were 27 of the Texas City Fire Department’s 28 firefighters.

— Kathleen Robinson