Why You’ve Never Heard About The Largest and Deadliest Man Made Disaster in U.S. History

By Jay H. Thames

Texas City shoreline, 24 hours after the blasts

The Question

The reaction is always the same. “Why have I never heard of this?”

As the grandson of one of the many heroic survivors of the largest and deadliest man-made disaster in United States History, I’m frequently faced with that very question. The answer isn’t so simple.

On April 16, 1947 — a short 18 months from the end of World War II, and less than 18 hours after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier — Texas City, Texas was destroyed by the two largest explosions to ever occur on U.S soil. These three events may not seem connected — they are.

The History

Two French freighters — The Grandcamp and The High Flyer, each loaded past capacity with 2200 plus tons of fertilizer, en route to re-sod the charred, bombed out fields in France and Western Europe, were docked in the Texas City Harbor.

The fertilizer was composed of ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is a very effective fertilizer, but it also has other properties. When conditions are right (or wrong) ammonium nitrate is an extremely powerful explosive.

(As an aside: this is the same material Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995)

Texas City, Texas is a small refinery town on the Southeast coast of Texas, nestled into the Texas coastline 46 miles from Houston on the Gulf of Mexico. The city has soft regulation and the waterway a deep channel in the, both necessary components for large shipping freighters and big business to operate smoothly. In short, it is very business friendly. Those things haven’t changed since 1947.

The Company

When Monsanto first planted roots in Texas City, Texas those aforementioned factors were ultimately the ones that cemented the deal. They needed a chem-friendly place to make and ship their products. One of them being ammonium nitrate.

They could build a plant and access the waterways effectively, with a hungry, diverse labor force at the ready. It was a match made in Heaven — or as some would say after a cloudy day in April of 1947 — one made in Hell.

The Problem

On the morning of April 16, 1947 — the Texas City wharf was abuzz with activity. The fertilizer was quickly being loaded into the ship by hundreds of longshoremen working in 24 hour shifts, when a fire broke out in one of the holding bays. People gathered on the wharf as the brilliant orange smoke streamed into the sky.

The captain, having been reprimanded by Monsanto higher ups just days before regarding loss of cargo — and an incident in the port of Houston (that port had banned the transfer of ammonium nitrate mere hours before) — decided to suffocate the fire. It didn’t work. The explosion was measurable on Richter scales in Denver. 600 people lost their lives. Some bodies of those that had gathered to watch were never recovered.

The Devastation

Not only did the explosion destroy everything within a two-mile radius, the litany of horrific consequences reads like an unbelievable disaster film: small munitions loaded into the ships fired in all directions, shrapnel sliced bodies in half, a massive twenty foot tall tidal wave overtook higher ground, chain reaction explosions were non-stop, and a huge toxic cloud hung over the destroyed landscape like a cape.

Survivors were running through the streets, shouting “the Russians dropped the bomb!”, and, “it’s World War Three!”. It was pandemonium on an unprecedented scale.

The Aftermath

The negligence that was shared by Monsanto and the contracting party, in this instance the United States Government, was substantial. Both institutions were found liable for damages in the first ever class action suit in our country’s history. That decision was collectively appealed, and was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It then become readily apparent to the aforementioned institutions that this event needed no more attention, and hence, what could be learned from it suffered tremendously. Press coverage ceased. Questions stopped being asked.

Not only did Texas City not institute strict regulation to prevent such an accident from occurring again, they plant was rebuilt and Monsanto was welcomed back.

The Answer

The incident was covered poorly, or not at all, by local, national and international publications — it was excluded from textbooks. Inquiring parties stopped digging deeper.

As a student educated in Texas schools, an event of this magnitude would seemingly qualify as a teachable piece ofU.S History. Not so. Not even did it qualify for entry into the text of my Texas History schoolbook. I had to learn about it from my grandfather, who could barely speak of the incident coherently, it was so traumatic (and he was a WWII veteran of the Japanese theater, Army Air Corps).

What I did learn about was World War Two. I was taught the import of Jackie Robinson’s history making appearance. I cherish and respect said knowledge.

But these certainly are not the only reasons I’m faced with the same question over and over again when I tell the story of Texas City. The survivors of the blast, those that experienced it first hand, are asked that every day — and as it was then, it continues to be the defining moment in their lives.

Those individuals are the ones that deserve the obliteration of that question. Those people have shown strength, courage and a sense of inherent goodness in the face of death unparalleled in United States history.

On Monday September 25th, nine of those survivor stories will commence being shared. Stories you will be able to see here: facebook.com/77films

And once again, they will be doing more than their fair share to answer a question none of them ever wanted to address in the first place.