TEXAS CITY — While hundreds gathered near the city’s port, mesmerized by a plume of orange smoke that rose from a burning ship, Octava Bridges wasn’t as awestruck.
“I knew it was something bad,” Bridges, 96, said of the sight on April 16, 1947.
The color in the smoke came from burning ammonium nitrate inside the hold of the French cargo ship S.S. Grandcamp.
Bridges was right. A few minutes after 9 a.m., that smoke, described by many as “beautiful” turned to fire, debris and ruin as the Grandcamp exploded in what became known as the Texas City Disaster.
On Saturday, Bridges was among the 200 survivors of that blast who gathered for the Texas City Disaster Survivors photo. For 10 years, The Daily News and the Texas City Museum have partnered to publish the reunion photo of survivors to commemorate the anniversary of the explosion. This was Bridges first time to be a part of the photo and the first time she shared her story publicly.
The explosion, followed several hours later by a another blast, killed more than 550 people, left much of city’s industrial complex in ruin and forever changed Texas City.
Bridges, a native of Louisiana, had just moved to Texas City with her husband, Welton, who worked for Mainland Construction. She was in the couple’s small house on the alley of 17th Street when she first saw the smoke.
Before moving to Texas, Bridges worked at a munitions plant in Minden, La. The plant, which at one point had as many as 10,000 workers, was a primary manufacturer of ammunition for the U.S. Army during World War II.
So, she had an idea of what may have been burning down at the docks. That’s why she never ventured far from the house.
It wasn’t long that the house shook, windows shattered and debris fell from the sky.
Bridges and her husband made their way to Houston soon after.
“We didn’t sleep that night,” she said. “We didn’t know what was happening.”
They soon returned to the city. Welton Bridges helped carry bodies to the makeshift morgue, while Octava helped collect and distribute clothing to survivors in the days and weeks after the explosions.
She’s seen the city rebuild and expand in the 67 years since and still lives in the house she and her husband bought in the Chelsea Subdivision not long after the explosions.
“We never thought of leaving,” said Bridges, whose husband died in 1990. “This city’s been pretty good to us. It was bad that day, but it’s been pretty good ever since.”
Contact Mainland Editor T.J. Aulds at 409-683-5334 or email@example.com.