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1947 Texas City Disaster

Texas City, home of one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the United States, almost disappeared from existence on the morning of April 16, 1947. The losses from this disaster were unprecedented, from the number of those killed or wounded to the billions of dollars in damage. There has not been a documented American industrial accident of this magnitude since.

The nightmare began when the SS Grandcamp, bearing a cargo of ammonium nitrate fertilizer destined for Europe, caught fire while in the Texas City harbour. The local fire department responded to the dockside fire as they had done many times before with success. The colourful flames and smoke attracted a large crowd of curious children and adults. The people of Texas City have become unconcerned about fires on the dock, they happened all the time. It had become a common saying, “let’s go watch the firefighters work their magic.” Nobody knew about the highly explosive ammonium nitrate on board the very ship that was on fire.

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The label was simply marked fertilizer after all. There was nothing on the labels to indicate the volatile nature of what was in those bags. As the onlookers watched, the ship exploded sending a column of smoke over two thousand feet high into the air. A second explosion sent out a violent shockwave. Within minutes the entire industrial complex was on fire. Buildings were collapsing, trapping people inside. Pipelines were bursting spraying their contents onto anyone and everything around.

The water in the bay that had been compressed by the shockwave from the two explosions returned in the form of a tidal wave twenty feet high. Between the violent explosions, fierce fires, and the rushing water, some people literally disintegrated like the fire chief standing atop the ship when it exploded. Though exact numbers could never be established, estimates are as high as 600 dead and over 5,000 injured.

As if the fatalities and casualties were not enough, the damage caused by the incident was widespread and would take years to recover from. An earthquake like tremors was reported as far north as Palestine, Texas, as far east as the Louisiana – Mississippi border in Slidell, Lousiana, and as far south as Freeport. Windows were shattered from Freeport to Houston to Port Arthur.

The tidal wave reached one hundred and fifty feet inland, destroying what the fires didn’t and drowning dozens of people. Over five hundred homes were destroyed beyond repair leaving two thousand homeless. The seaport had all but disappeared and most of the businesses either disintegrated from the explosion or were reduced to rubble by the fires. Over one thousand vehicles were found to be either totally destroyed or severely damaged and nearly four hundred freight cars were demolished.

No other industrial accident has been reported with death tolls and injuries greater than those of the Texas City Disaster. Other than the Texas City Disaster, the highest numbers from an American industrial accident come from the 2005 explosion at a BP refinery, also located in Texas City, with 15 dead and over 100 injured. The damage incurred from the disaster reached an estimated total of what would be $4.5 billion in today’s monetary value.

The incident closest to those numbers was an explosion at a Phillips facility in Pasadena, Texas in October of 1989 reaching an estimated $1.4 billion in damages. Having been unprecedented in 1947 and still not succeeded to today makes the Texas City Disaster the worst industrial accident in America’s history.

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1947 Texas City Disaster. (2021, Feb 15). Retrieved June 14, 2021, from