Thursday, April 16, 2009

Solemn Anniversary

The view from Galveston on that day. Source: UNT Portal to Texas History.

Today marks the 62nd anniversary of the 1947 Texas City Disaster, where two ships in the harbor, the Grandcamp and the Highflyer, carrying tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded in the worst industrial accident in American history:

The tremendous blast sent a 15-foot (4.5 m) tsunami/tidal wave surging over nearly 100 miles (160 km) of the Texas shoreline, leveled nearly 1,000 buildings on land, and sunk virtually every ship within the harbor. A chain reaction caused an explosion on board the High Flyer and ignited refineries on the waterfront, destroying the Monsanto Chemical Company plant and several explosive facilities. Falling bales of burning twine added to the damage while the anchor of the Grandcamp was hurled across the city. Sightseeing airplanes flying nearby had their wings sheared off [4], forcing both out of the sky. The blast caused people in Galveston, Texas, 10 miles (16 km) away, to drop to their knees. Windows were shattered in Houston, Texas, 40 miles (60 km) away. People felt the shock 250 miles (400 km) away in Louisiana. The explosion blew almost 6,350 tons of the ship's steel into the air, some at supersonic speed. Official casualty estimates came to a total of 567, but many victims were burned to ashes or literally blown to bits, and the official total is believed to be an underestimate. The entire volunteer fire department of Texas City was killed in the initial explosion, and with the fires and aftermath raging, first responders from other areas were unable to reach the site of the disaster.

. . . The Texas City Disaster is generally considered the worst industrial accident in American history. Witnesses compared the scene to the fairly recent images of the 1943 German bombing of ammunition ships in the harbor at Bari and the much larger devastation at Nagasaki. The official death toll was 581. Of the dead, 405 were identified and 63 have never been identified. The remaining 113 people were classified as missing, for no identifiable parts were ever found. This figure includes all 28 firefighters who were aboard Grandcamp when it exploded. There is some speculation that there may have been hundreds more killed but uncounted, including visiting seamen, non-census laborers and their families, and an untold number of travelers. However, there were some survivors as close as 70 feet (21 m) from the dock. The victims' bodies quickly filled the local morgue, and several bodies were laid out in the local high school's gymnasium for identification by loved ones.

Over 5,000 people were injured, with 1,784 admitted to twenty-one area hospitals. More than 500 homes were destroyed and hundreds damaged, leaving 2,000 homeless. The seaport was destroyed and many businesses were flattened or burned. Over 1,100 vehicles were damaged, 362 freight cars obliterated — the property damage was estimated at $100 million.[5] A 2 ton anchor of Grandcamp was hurled 1.62 miles (2.61 km) and found in a 10-foot (3 m) crater. It now rests in a memorial park. The other main 5 ton anchor was hurled 1/2 mile (800 m) to the entrance of the Texas City Dike, and rests on a Texas shaped memorial at the entrance. Burning wreckage ignited everything within miles, including dozens of oil storage tanks and chemical tanks. The nearby city of Galveston, Texas, was covered with an oily fog which left deposits over every exposed outdoor surface. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Rescue workers search through debris near a multi-storied building which has been destroyed. (This building is probably the Monsanto building.) Only the metal framework remains of much of the building, and twisted and bent metal is very visible on the front top section of the building. A group of men are examining a section of railroad track which has been damaged. Metal and wooden debris is widely scattered. On the left side of the photograph, an ambulance is parked with back doors open. Rescue workers include both military and civilians. On the reverse of the photograph is written: "From John P. Blazetic with 32nd medical battalion." Source: UNT Portal to Texas History.

Also see the Houston Chronicle archives for eyewitness accounts of that day that make you feel as if you were there.

Today, Texas City still thrives with industry. It is the 9th largest deep water port in the U.S. Also nearby is the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel, which boasted 7,703 ships making call at the Port and handled 225 million tons of cargo in 2007. (See trade statistics.) More than 150 private industrial companies line the ship channel. Ship channel-related businesses support more than 785,000 jobs throughout Texas while generating nearly $118 billion of statewide economic impact. Additionally, more than $3.7 billion in state and local tax revenues are generated by business activities related to the port.

The ship channel ends just a few miles from downtown Houston. More than 17 million people live within 300 miles of Houston, which ranks as the nation's fourth largest city, and approximately 60 million live within 700 miles.

Small wonder then, that Texas Monthly magazine ran a November 2004 article entitled "Attack Here" discussing the attractiveness of the ship channel as a target for terrorists looking to attack the U.S.

Houston-area residents seeking to prepare for a Texas City-type disaster, whether accidental or terroristic in nature, should follow the standard NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) preparedness procedures. The top priorities should be:

  1. An emergency radio to listen to local authorities' instructions for sheltering-in-place;
  2. A 72-hour survival kit for each family member in case evacuations are ordered;
  3. A full tank of gas in your car (I fill up every Sunday regardless of how full or empty my tank is);
  4. Pre-planned out-of-area contacts for family members to call and check in with in case the family is separated at the time of an attack;
  5. An NBC-rated gas mask. Good-quality civilian masks and extra filters can be found here (see here for pet masks);
  6. Two weeks' supply of food, water, and medicines.


Anonymous said...

What utter and complete devastation. After reading the article in full, I can see why this channel could be an ideal target for an attack. Great outlined priorities. After the mess that was New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it would be days if not weeks before FEMA could appropriately respond to such a disaster.

lynnaea said...

I agree. I also agree with your posted article that anyone who intends to shelter in place for any extended period of time had better be prepared to fend off the starving masses. After Hurricane Ike last fall, many parts of Houston were without power for two weeks and people's patience was really wearing thin.