TEXAS CITY

Inez Martinez was working on the ship Grandcamp the night before the explosion that killed hundreds of people in Texas City — the deadliest industrial disaster in U.S. history.

When the blast happened on April 16, 1947, Martinez was four days from turning 21. He worked different jobs to get by.

At $3.33 an hour, the work on the ship paid about three times more than his regular job moving concrete, so Martinez liked working there when he could, he said. But with rain in the forecast, he didn’t think he’d be able to work on the ship that fateful day and instead went to work moving concrete.

“Going to the other job ended up saving our lives,” Martinez said.

Each year, Martinez, 92, attends an anniversary event at Memorial Park in Texas City to remember the people who died on that horrific day, he said.

On Monday morning, Fire Chief David Zacherl shared the story of the Pelly Fire Department fire truck — the last known operating fire apparatus that responded to the explosion — during the yearly memorial.

The ceremony also honored former Baytown Assistant Chief Bernard Olive, who had planned to tell the story of the Pelly fire truck he bought and restored to preserve its history. But Olive died on April 5.

“Bernard was a historian and believed that history was an important part of America and should be told and remembered,” city Commissioner Phil Roberts said.

Pelly was one of three communities — along with Goose Creek and Baytown — now combined to make up the city of Baytown, which is north of Texas City, that responded to the call for help after a fire on the Grandcamp, where ammonium nitrate was being shipped, led to an explosion, Zacherl said.

The fire detonated the ammonium nitrate. Shortly after, the High Flyer, another ship, exploded. The blasts were felt in Galveston. Houses were shaken off their foundations. About 600 people died and more than 5,000 were injured.

All 27 firefighters on the Texas City Fire Department were killed and the department’s three trucks were destroyed.

A call had gone out for help and fire crews from all over the region, including Pelly, arrived to fight off the blast, Zacherl said. The Pelly crew included Alton Olive, Bernard Olive’s cousin.

“On the evening of the 16th, it became apparent that they were not going to be able to extinguish the fires aboard the High Flyer and the decision was made to evacuate the area,” Zacherl said.

The crew had made it back to state Highway 146 when the High Flyer exploded, he said.

“Shrapnel began falling from the sky, in fact; Alton Olive was hit by a piece about the size of a 50-cent piece on the helmet, which knocked him off the back of the truck,” Zacherl said. “The firefighters then dove under the truck in an attempt to avoid the falling metal from the explosion of the High Flyer.”

The crews returned after the sky cleared and continued fighting fires for the next three days, he said.

The truck stayed in commission until 1975 and was put up for auction in 1977, he said. Bernard Olive won a bidding war with a local scrap dealer to buy the truck and kept it in his backyard for decades working on it and restoring it to its original condition, Zacherl said.

“Thanks to the efforts and dedication of Bernard, his family and friends, the truck you see here today is as it was on the day it responded right down to the equipment mounted on the truck,” Zacherl said.

Marissa Barnett: 409-683-5257; marissa.barnett@galvnews.com

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