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Chemical blast brings echoes from ship explosion disaster 66 years earlier

The Associated Press

Refineries and oil storage tanks at a Monsanto chemical plant burn after a ship being loaded with fertilizer exploded in Texas City, Texas, on April 16, 1947, killing hundreds and injuring thousands.

The deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant that ripped through the town of West, Texas, on Wednesday, stirred echoes of one of the worst industrial accidents in United States history, which struck the state 66 years ago earlier this week.

On April 16, 1947, the French cargo ship SS Grandcamp, anchored in Texas City, was being loaded with a cargo of ammonium nitrate fertilizer when a fire broke out on board.

At 9:12 a.m., the ship exploded and took much of the town with it, according to the archives of Moore Memorial Public Library in Texas City. A second blast rattled the area 16 hours later.

It remains one of the worst industrial disasters ever to hit the United States.

To this day, there is no definitive death toll. The Texas State Historical Association notes that 576 people are listed on the site's memorial wall but that many more may have died.

Because so many victims were so horribly mangled, and because of the number of foreign sailors and itinerant dockworkers, it is impossible say how many people actually perished, both the library and the historical association say.

About 1,000 homes and businesses were either heavily damaged or destroyed in the explosion, which caused a 15-foot-high tidal wave, killed 28 firemen and destroyed all the town's firefighting equipment. Contemporary accounts say the blast shattered windows 40 miles away in Houston and was felt 250 miles away in Louisiana.

About 150 embalmers worked at a temporary morgue, and identification of bodies continued through mid-June. Even students from regional dental schools were called in to try to identify remains.

The deaths in Texas City were not necessarily in vain.

Experts examined industrial safety and in particular the handling and storage of chemicals.

There was a new awareness of the danger of ammonium nitrate, which had been abundant as wartime munitions were converted to fertilizer.

And governments around the country saw the need for coordinated emergency response and disaster relief.

In many ways, people are probably safer today because of the explosions in Texas City, and the town recovered financially in the years after the disaster, remaining home to a thriving petrochemical industry. The Census Bureau shows that the population is bigger than ever, with more than 45,000 people calling Texas City home.

But the effect left by the disaster is difficult to overstate.

After a June 22 public funeral, an editorial in the Texas City Sun said those touched by the event had been "bound together by a great and common tragedy for which there is no ready word of solace."


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