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The Texas City Disaster was one of the worst incidents to ever occur in America. On the morning of April 16, 1947, a fire broke out in the USS Grandcamp’s cargo hold. Small clouds of smoke were spotted coming from the ship, and many dockworkers and crewmen took notice.
Immediate action was required because the vessel wasn’t carrying your average cargo. It was carrying 2,200 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive compound.
As the fire began to intensify, the ship’s captain ordered his crew to “steam the hold,” which was a common firefighting tactic for ships of the time. Steam was piped into the cargo hold to help extinguish the fire — only in this case, it didn’t put the fire out. It made matters worse. Ammonium nitrate produces its own oxygen, which means the steam only raised the internal temperature of the hold and turned the ammonium nitrate into nitrous oxide. This caused a further increase in the already building pressure of the ship.
A crowd of spectators began to amass at the docks to stare at the massive orange smoke plume that was pouring out of the ship. The heat from the fire and steam had caused the water around the ship to boil, which drew even more spectators. As the pressure continued to build, the cargo hold of the ship began to bulge.
Just over an hour after the initial fire was spotted, the combination of heat and pressure caused the ship to explode. The destruction was incomprehensible. The blast generated its own 15-foot tsunami that could be seen from over 100 miles away. Thousands of buildings were immediately leveled, and the Grandcamp’s anchor was thrown across the city. Steel from the ship was propelled into the air, obliterating the entire dock. But the damage wasn’t done there.
The explosion from the Grandcamp caused a fire to start just 600 feet away on the SS High Flyer. This ship was also carrying ammonium nitrate. As falling metal and debris filled the skies from the previous explosion, nearby crew moved their attention to the new threat at hand. Firefighting crews spent hours attempting to put out the new flames, but the ship’s fate was quickly becoming clear. Firefighters and crew quickly shifted from trying to put the fire out to trying to sail the ship out to sea, but the massive debris from the first explosion provided too many hurdles. Approximately 15 hours after the first explosion, the High Flyer detonated.
The incident would go down as the worst industrial accident in American history. As many as 581 people died, and more than 5,000 were injured. The damage done to the city would translate to $1.1 billion in modern currency. The wreckage of the ships burned for over a week, serving as a constant reminder to the survivors of the horrors that took place.
The first ever class action lawsuit would follow the events of the Texas City Disaster. Many would be compiled into one massive suit: Elizabeth Dalehite, et al. v. United States. Nearly three years after the date of the disaster, the U.S. District Court would rule in favor of the plaintiff, stating that 168 agencies were negligent in multiple factors that caused the disaster. But this wasn’t without recourse.
Nearly two years later, the U.S. District Court of Appeals overturned the decision, stating that the U.S. had the right to use its own discretion in matters like these. A subsequent Supreme Court would uphold this decision. However, the American spirit would triumph, as many caring citizens would rally around the cause. The rally was so profound that it caused Congress to take notice, and over eight years after the initial disaster, legislation was passed ordering settlements for almost 1,400 claims, totaling $17 million. There is no winning in a situation like this, but we can take solace knowing the reform the incident caused has already protected thousands and will protect thousands more to come.