On a brisk and sunny Wednesday morning in April 1947, a cargo ship loaded with thousands of tons of quietly smoldering ammonium nitrate suddenly exploded in port, demolishing much of Texas City.
The tremendous blast generated such a tremor that a seismograph in Denver, 1,005 miles away, recorded the shock in a jittered scrawl.
By the time a second, similarly devastating blast came 16 hours later — at 1:10 a.m., April 17, 1947 — a reporter for The Daily News named Roy E. Hanna was rushing to the scene.
“I was driving along highway No. 146 and had reached the Republic Refining Corporation,” Hanna reported in time for that morning’s edition of the paper.
“Suddenly, I looked up and noticed what appeared to be a floating rainbow rising gently into the black, smoke filled skies above.
“At first I thought it was a butane tank at Monsanto, but after an investigation found it to be another ship.”
It was the S.S. High Flyer, which crews had tried but failed to tow from the port before it exploded.
“After I saw what was happening, I jumped out of my jeep, left it running in the road and hit the dirt in a ditch to seek protection. The ditch was full of gas and stagnant water, and I crawled into a drainage pipe to avoid the falling fragments of steel that whistled through the air like heavy artillery and showered the area for a mile or more. …”
The explosions — first in the hold of the S.S. Grandcamp and then in that of the High Flyer — killed more than 600 people in what remains, still today, the nation’s worst industrial disaster.
Windows were shattered as far off as Baytown, 25 miles across the water, and, too, in Galveston.
“Mounting casualty lists from hospitals and aid stations showed that at least 400 persons were dead and over 700 were injured,” the April 17 lead story in The Daily News reported. “Rescue workers early Thursday still were struggling to give help to the injured yet unaided and to care for the bodies of the dead.
“Estimates of the total number of deaths ranged from 450 to 1,200. Injuries were reported from one source at 4,000. Only a small portion of the 800 Monsanto employees were reportedly located. …
“Almost every building was damaged, and many were uninhabitable. Many persons both in Texas City and elsewhere were still trying to learn the fate of relatives and friends. …
“Virtually three-fifths of the industrial might of the petroleum, chemical and sugar shipping center was obliterated.”
An official report on the disaster was released two weeks later.
“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.”
Hanna, drenched from his ditch dive to escape the debris of the High Flyer’s explosion, ran to his jeep and sped back to The Daily News offices in downtown Galveston to type up his first-person account, which ran on that morning’s front page.
“Four fire departments were reportedly at the docks fighting the fire,” he wrote in conclusion. “Some reports indicated there were several hundred persons in the area, and I wonder how any could have survived.”