The World Cracked

Some memories stick. I am sure we were outside, in front of our house in Granbury. I was six, and grownups were discussing an item in the newspaper. The headlines were bold. They must have screamed. It was a major calamity.

On 16 April 1947, 70 years ago, two ships loaded with explosive cargo detonated in the harbor in Texas City. The consequences were devastating:

The Texas City disaster was an industrial accident that occurred April 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas City. It was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions. Originating with a mid-morning fire on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the port), her cargo of approximately 2,200 tons (approximately 2,100 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate detonated, with the initial blast and subsequent chain-reaction of further fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities.

The war in Europe had been over nearly two years and was almost lost in my young mind. Trade with European countries was resurging after years of their domination by fascist regimes. The loads of ammonium nitrate, produced in Texas, were headed to farms overseas.

A fire that started earlier, likely from human carelessness, in the hold of the Grandchamp had proved to be uncontrollable. Members of the Texas City fire department had been fighting the fire for hours, and the commotion had attracted a crowd of on-lookers.

Ammonium nitrate is a usable source of nitrogen for growing plants, and it is also endothermic. Energy must be applied to the basic elements to create the ammonium nitrate molecule. The molecule can disintegrate and release this stored energy when prodded. For this reason it is often used as an explosive. The notorious German V-2 rocket used a warhead comprising mostly ammonium nitrate, and domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh used a truck load of commercially available fertilizer to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

As firemen fought the fire aboard the docked Grandchamp, and as spectators looked on, the entire load aboard the ship went off.

The two-ton (4000 pounds) anchor of the Grandchamp was hurled 1.62 miles, creating a crater ten feet deep where it landed. It resides as a memorial at a park near the base of the Texas City Dike.

Nearby rests the the screw from the High Flyer. This ship also contained a load of ammonium nitrate, and the explosion of the Grandchamp set it ablaze. It exploded the following morning, and one of its screws was found nearly a mile inland.

These large devices, usually made of bronze, are often attached to their shafts by means of a large nut, which is tightened onto the threaded shaft. In this case the nut is still attached, along with the end of the shaft.

Evidence that people often do not learn was exhibited a few years ago, again in Texas. In the town of West, located on I-35 between Waco and Dallas, a private company stored a large quantity of ammonium nitrate in a shed near a residential area. While firemen were fighting a fire of unknown origin, the contents exploded, killing all nearby and causing large scale destruction to part of the town. The deadly instant was captured on video by an observer standing a considerable distance away.

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