Seven decades ago, the worst industrial accident in American history occurred. In a little town southeast of Houston known as Texas City, business was booming in 1947. Thanks to its plethora of petroleum and chemical plants, combined with the war effort for World War II, Texas City ballooned into a major industrial center.
The disaster began mid-morning on April 16. Onboard the French vessel SS Grandcamp, a fire broke out. The ship was storing the highly volatile compound ammonium nitrate. For hours, crew attempted to snuff out the flames, but they kept coming back. Spectators gathered along the shoreline to watch the fire. Unbeknownst to them, they were not safe, even as far away from the ship as they were.
The Explosion of the Grandcamp and Leveling of Texas City
When the fire reached the cargo, it created one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in recorded history. The Grandcamp detonated, setting off a chain reaction that was felt far away. Some 1,000 buildings were leveled, including the Monsanto Chemical Company plant. Fires broke out all along the waterfront, igniting refineries and chemical tanks. Two planes flying nearby were knocked out of the sky. In Galveston, 10 miles away, people were brought to their knees. People in Louisiana, 250 miles away, felt the shock wave. Nearly 6,000 tons of steel was blown into the air.
Though no cause has ever been determined, it is thought that it may have started with a stray cigarette.
In the end, 567 people were killed and 113 were classified as missing. The sheer magnitude of the disaster has earned it the nickname, “The Worst Industrial Accident in United States History.”