The Grandcamp Blast That Rocked Texas City
By James Donahue
The explosion of the French cargo ship Grandcamp at Texas City, Texas, on April 16,
1947, is still counted as the deadliest industrial accident in U. S. history.
The blast, caused by a fire that broke out while dock workers were loading highly
explosive cargo detonated an estimated 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate and several cases of small arms ammunition. The explosion
and a chain reaction of fires and explosions that ripped the port city left an estimated 581 people dead.
Fragments of the ship, some of them weighing tons, fell over the city. The force
of the blast caused property damage that extended into the business district, about a mile away. Shrapnel bombarded buildings
and oil storage tanks at a nearby refinery starting numerous fires.
The force of the explosion knocked two small aircraft out of the sky from overhead.
The explosion instantly killed 26 local volunteer fire fighters and members of the
Republic Oil Refining Company fire fighting team, ship’s crew members and several local onlookers that were either on
the burning ship, at the fire scene or they got too close.
The explosion was heard from 150 miles away. The concussion knocked people off their
feet and shattered store windows in nearby Galveston. It was said that buildings swayed in Baytown, some 15 miles to the north.
There were so many people injured that special medical clinics were set up. Doctors,
nurses and ambulances were brought in from miles away. The most serious casualties were transported to hospitals in Galveston
While all of this was going on a second ship in the harbor, a Liberty carrier like
the Grandcap, the High Flyer, loaded with sulfur and a thousand tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, was discovered to also
be on fire. This vessel had been badly damaged by the blast and was abandoned by the crew.
The fire on the High Flyer was discovered a few hours later when workers went aboard
in search of casualties. Tugs worked until early the next morning trying to tow the vessel out of the harbor, but the effort
failed. Shortly after leaving the scene, the High Flyer also blew up. Some said the blast was as powerful, if not stronger,
than the one that destroyed the Grandcamp. The area had been mostly evacuated in anticipation of the second blast so casualties
were light. But damage to property in the city was compounded.
Even more refinery fires were started by falling burning debris. Other buildings
were set ablaze.
In the final count, an estimated 500-600 people died, another 3,500 were estimated
to have been injured, the refineries and the Monsanto plant were extensively damaged, about 25 percent of the city was leveled,
one-third of the town’s 1,519 homes were condemned and about 2,000 residents were left homeless.
The disaster triggered the first class action lawsuit against the U. S. government
under the newly enacted Federal Tort Claims Act. There were 8,485 named plaintiffs in this litigation.