The first explosion, coming at 9:12 a.m., shattered the morning calm and demolished much of Texas City.
What began on Wednesday, April 16, 1947 — 70 years ago today — remains the nation’s worst man-made disaster not related to war.
The concussive force of the blast was so powerful that a survivor, at the time a 10-year-old boy taking an arithmetic quiz, can recall hearing nothing until his head cleared amid his classmates’ shrieks in a room suddenly littered with shattered glass.
“I had just started on a fractions test when the first explosion happened,” Raymond Dupuy, then a fifth-grader at Texas City’s brick-built Danforth Elementary School, said, his voice catching as he recounted the nightmare day.
“I don’t remember hearing anything at all right when it happened. They say a concussion wave can do that. It blew all the windows in and buckled walls.
“Then I heard everybody screaming, and we all tried to get out. I was pretty small and I got knocked down and was getting trampled. I started praying to the good Lord Jesus to help me get up, and he did.
“I ran down to the landing, where a wall had collapsed, blocking the rest of the stairs, but you could slide down it. I remember seeing Principal Spencer holding a bloody handkerchief to his neck with one hand and helping us with his other.”
Windows were blown out as far off as Baytown, 25 miles across the water and, too, in Galveston. A seismograph in Denver, at a distance of 1,000 miles, jittered an inky scrawl in registering the blast.
Some 16,000 people at the time called Texas City home, many of whom worked at the refineries and petrochemical plants along Galveston Bay, and for the Port of Texas City, where the blast, and a second to come, occurred.
An estimated 600 of them died in the disaster, which bled into a second day when another tremendous explosion, a delayed result of the first, followed at 1:10 a.m. Thursday.
By then, residents had been ordered to get out.
“Around dusk, a station wagon came around with a loudspeaker, and they said to evacuate the town, that another explosion was imminent,” Dupuy recounted.
“You couldn’t go south, so everybody was going north. It looked like the Oklahoma land rush, people were running and driving across lawns, any way they could go.”
An uncertain toll
A report released two weeks later — a joint study by the Fire Prevention and Engineering Bureau of Texas and the National Board of Fire Underwriters — makes for grim reading.
“A fire discovered by stevedores preparing to resume loading of ammonium nitrate aboard the S.S. Grandcamp at Warehouse (Pier) O, about 8 a.m., April 16, 1947, resulted in the first of two disastrous explosions at 9:12 a.m., which destroyed the entire dock area, numerous oil tanks, the Monsanto Chemical Company, numerous dwellings and business buildings,” the report began.
“The second explosion resulted from a fire in ammonium nitrate aboard the S.S. High Flyer, which occurred some sixteen hours later at 1:10 a.m. …
“Approximately 1,000 residences and business buildings suffered either major structural damage or were totally destroyed. … Drill stems 30 feet long, 6 3/8 inches in diameter, weight 2,700 pounds, part of the cargo of the S.S. Grandcamp, were found buried 6 feet in the clay soil a distance of 13,000 feet from the point of the explosion …
“All firemen and practically all spectators on the pier were killed as were many employees in the Monsanto Chemical Company and throughout the dock area. At this date, April 29, 1947, 433 bodies have been recovered and approximately 135 (many of whom were on the dock) are missing. … The exact casualties will probably never be known as many bodies were blown to pieces. …
“Over 2,000 suffered injuries in varying degrees, among whom were many school children injured by flying glass fragments and debris in school buildings located about 6,000 feet distant.”
The city’s population had grown rapidly in the early 1940s as the port city’s two chemical plants and three refineries expanded because of demand generated by World War II.
Monsanto, for one, was a leading supplier of styrene, a principal ingredient in synthetic rubber, and its production and payroll escalated as the war wore on.
The report noted National Weather Service data showing that at the time of the first explosion the temperature was a crisp 56 degrees with a 20 mph breeze blowing from the north-northwest, helping to push a black, toxic cloud formed by the myriad chemical, petroleum and structure fires out of Texas City, aiding initial rescue efforts, while carrying the same poisonous billow toward Galveston Island, where the explosion sounded as if it had occurred next door.
“We thought the room next to ours, which was the boiler room, had exploded,” Frank Urbanic, then a 13-year-old student at Galveston’s Stephen F. Austin Junior High School, recalled. “They led us outside. I remember it was a brisk, sunny morning, not a cloud in the sky.
“Then, within 30 or 40 minutes, the sky became overcast with a thick, almost black cloud, and it started raining oil and tar and soot on us. I remember I had on a white shirt, and by the end of the day it was black.”
A rapid response
Urbanic later wrote a book about the memories he and his fellow Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, too, had of their roles in the emergency response.
Within hours of the explosion, despite that Texas City telephone employees were on strike that day — most, though, rushed back to work — rescuers began streaming into the devastated area.
Help arrived from the Army, the Coast Guard, the Marine Reserve, the Navy and the Texas National Guard. Doctors and nurses, along with medical students, sped across the causeway from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Firefighters from every jurisdiction between Galveston and Houston rushed to the scene. Police arrived from as far away as San Antonio to help with enforcement amid the chaos.
The Army ferried in medical supplies, gas masks and food. And, too, help arrived from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
Camp Wallace, which during the war had served as an anti-aircraft training base, provided emergency housing for benumbed survivors.
In Texas City, city hall and the chamber of commerce’s offices were converted to makeshift clinics; the Texas City High School gym was pressed into service as a morgue.
Even reputed Galveston mobster Sam Maceo helped out, organizing a large-scale benefit concert whose performers included Frank Sinatra.
The initial explosion came less than an hour after a stevedore helping to finish loading the French-owned Grandcamp noticed smoke rising from a cargo hold loaded with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that under certain circumstances is highly combustible.
The ship’s captain, hoping to save the cargo, made two ultimately catastrophic decisions.
“The firefighters fighting that fire in 1947 didn’t know that that fertilizer produced its own oxygen; no one knew that at the time,” said Texas City Fire Chief David Zacherl, who joined the department in 1982 and was appointed chief three years ago today — the 67th anniversary of the disaster. “The ship’s captain ordered the hatches closed and turned on the steam, but you can’t smother something that creates its own oxygen.”
Lessons were learned from that day, and stringent federal regulations were implemented to try to prevent a recurrence of the disaster, now synonymous with Texas City.
“The sense of loss is felt by our entire community, not just the fire department,” Zacherl said, noting that the 26 firefighters killed, including Chief Henry Baumgartner, were only a few of the 600 people who perished that day. “There wasn’t virtually anybody in this city who wasn’t affected. I think that’s a part of why we have such a sense of community here, why our town is so close-knit.”