Remembering the worst ever U.S. industrial accident, 1947: 576 dead at Texas City

April 16 marks the 67th anniversary of the Texas City Disaster.

It’s a day Texans, and all Americans should note.  It’s an event we need to remember, because every point of the disaster is something we forget at our very great peril.  Thinking such a disaster could not happen again, and failing to train for these same conditions, contributed to the disaster last year in West, Texas.

67 years ago, in the harbor at Texas City, a large cargo ship being loaded with tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded, setting fire to other nearby ships, one of which exploded, devastating much of the town. In all, 576 people died in Texas City on April 16 and 17, 1947.

View of Texas City from across the bay, in Galveston, April 16, 1947

View of Texas City from Galveston, across the bay, after the explosion of the French ship SS Grandchamp, April 16, 1947. Photo from International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1259

The incident also produced one of the most famous tort cases in U.S. history, Dalehite vs. United States, 346 U.S. 15 (1953). (Here is the Findlaw version, subscription may be required.)

The entire Texas City fire department was wiped out, 28 firefighters in all. The International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1259 has a website dedicated to the history of the disaster, with a collection of some powerful photographs.

More below the fold.

It was a creeping disaster, starting with fire aboard the Grandchamp as it was being loaded, including fires aboard at least four vessels by day’s end, two massive explosions, a tsunami, and fires across the city as a result of raining debris. Here is part of the explanation from the IAFF Local 1259 site:

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 mushroom like cloud billowed more than 2,ooo feet into the morning air, the shockwave 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 over pressure 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 ships cargo fell out of the sky, adding to the growing conflagration.

Some descriptions say the sisal rope in some places resembled a massive spider web across the city. The disaster wasn’t over, yet — for another half day ship fires would rage leading to a second explosion; again, from the IAFF Local 1259 site:

The horror was not over yet. 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 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 17th April, flames were shooting out of the hold. The tugs retrieved the boarders, severed tow lines, 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 days until the fires gradually burned out or were extinguished by weary fire-fighting crews.

The disaster occurred shortly after the enactment of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which detailed how and when citizens could sue the government for injurious actions. Many people sued, including Elizabeth Dalehite, suing for wrongful death of her husband Henry Dalehite; at least 300 separate suits were consolidated into the Dalhite suit. Texas district federal courts determined the federal government was liable on several grounds (the ammonium nitrate was bound for Europe as part of the post-World War II reconstruction process); on appeal, however, the Supreme Court determined that various negligent acts by government decision makers did not make the government liable, since the negligence was in the planning of the processes, not in the execution, and planning negligence is immune from liability.

The case established that breaking through governmental immunity would be difficult even under the FTCA (an issue I dealt with in the radiation compensation issues three decades later). Notably, by the time the case got to the Supreme Court, a young attorney named Warren Burger was Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. , supervising the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. Burger appeared in court on behalf of the United States. Three years later President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Burger to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where he sat for 13 years, until President Richard Nixon named him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1969.

The Texas City disaster gets only brief coverage in most Texas history texts (there is no mention in Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)). Neither do other disasters get much coverage, such as the Galveston hurricane of 1900 (between 6,000 and 15,000 dead), the New London School explosion of March 18, 1937, nor the famous 1957 Dallas tornado. The Dust Bowl was a longer-running disaster, and is covered, but not in so much depth as I would like. Without being too macabre, a Texas history teacher could make the course considerably more interesting, and perhaps relevant, with reference to these disasters and how they shaped the Texas psyche.

Disasters expose the errors and mistakes humans make in developing our modern world.  Often, they point out serious problems in government institutions, and they provide opportunities for heroes to rise to superhuman tasks.  The Texas City Disaster should be part of the core knowledge of all Texans.

Here are additional sources.

2014 updates:  

This is, indeed, mostly an encore post.

3 Responses to Remembering the worst ever U.S. industrial accident, 1947: 576 dead at Texas City

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    It’s been a year. Solid reports on lackadaisical regulation of these dangerous substances have been done by WFAA Channel 8 in Dallas, and the Dallas Morning News, among others.

    But just now is the state starting to do anything to improve safety and prevent future accidents.

    Fortunately, West was much smaller than Texas City. Unfortunately, obvious lessons from Texas City either had not been learned, or were long forgotten, by this time last year.

    We remember history because we can prevent disaster. If we don’t remember history, we risk repeating disaster.


  2. Debra says:

    April is a bad month for fire disasters in Texas. Tomorrow is also the anniversary of the West fertilizer plant explosion. the media is saying the survivors just want to move past it and just see it as an accident. But that was clearly an ‘accident’ waiting to happen. I really wish people would remember these things and use them as cautionary tales.


  3. Black Flag® says:

    How easy for government to advert its culpability whenever it sees fit to do so.


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