Shrapnel from Texas City Explosion

One of the deadliest industrial accidents in American history

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On the morning of April 16, 1947, a fire started on the SS Grandcamp, a cargo ship docked in the Port of Texas City, igniting 2,300 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer in its hold. The resulting explosion leveled the dock and surrounding industrial area and ignited two more explosions. The concussion and debris from the blasts damaged buildings across the city. At the time, the Texas City disaster was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history — an estimated 581 people were killed and thousands more injured.

The Grandchamp explosion ignited a second explosion at the nearby Monsanto Chemical Company plant and set fire to a second ship, the SS Highflyer, that was also carrying ammonium nitrate. The Highflyer exploded 16 hours later, adding more destruction and fear to an already devastated city. The explosions hurled parts of the ships, dock equipment, surrounding warehouses, and nearby railcars and automobiles into businesses and homes all over town. The Grandchamp’s one-and-a-half ton anchor landed two miles away. Each of the blasts sent shockwaves through the city, blowing out windows and setting new fires. In the end, the loss of property totaled about $67 million.

The first explosion left Texas City without emergency services, destroying all of its firefighting equipment and knocking out water and power. All 27 members of the volunteer fire department responded to the fire on the SS Grandchamp. Their initial attempts to put out the flames had no effect — the ship was so hot that water vaporized on contact. Unaware of the explosive power of the fertilizer in the hold, they boarded the vessel to fight the fire more aggressively. The ship exploded moments later, killing everyone on board.

Hundreds of locals immediately began rescue work with what resources they had, while an additional 4,000 Red Cross and other volunteers poured in. Local, state, and federal officials worked to identify victims for two months after the disaster. Victims were identified by physical descriptions, what they were wearing, where they worked, or other unique information. In some cases, the FBI matched fingerprints from unidentified remains with prints already on record. Despite their best efforts, 63 victims were never identified and almost 200 people were listed as missing. The destruction brought about new regulations for the chemical manufacturing industry. New regulations for ammonium nitrate required cool temperatures and specialized containers for shipping and storing, prohibited storage near other reactive materials, discouraged travel over long distances, and greatly restricted overseas transport. It also led to a more proactive approach to industrial disaster planning across the country, including the creation of mutual aid systems across states.

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Shrapnel from Texas City Explosion Artifact from Texas City, TX
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