The Monsanto Fire, Texas City, Texas, 1947

During the time of World War II, ammonium nitrate was combined with dynamite and used in demolition bombs. Now, in 1947, the ammonium nitrated had a peacetime use as fertilizer. And, until April 14th, 80,000 tons of the fertilizer had been shipped through Texas City and there had been no problems.

Early in the morning of April 14th smoke was discovered on board the SS Grandcamp seeping from the bags of chemicals. The ship held 46,000 sacks or 2,300 tons of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate. The dock workers poured water onto the smoke. When the water had no effect, steam was applied and the hatches were closed with all ventilation holes covered. Half an hour after the smoke appeared, the 26 man Texas City volunteer fire department brought their equipment to the scene.

An hour after smoke first appeared, disaster struck. The time was 9:12 am and all the clocks in Texas City froze. The ship exploded not once but three times. The blasts were felt 150 miles away and caused a seismograph to register. Experts estimate the explosive power was more severe than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the force occurred at ground level rather than in the air. Two planes were shot out of the air, crashing to the ground. The explosion caused a tidal wave. At least 400 people died instantly including the entire Texas City volunteer fire department.

Ditzel reports: “Mr. and Mrs. Hollie O. Youngman were driving along a highway two miles from the Grandcamp when a razor-sharp chunk of the ship sliced through the windshield of their coupe and decapitated them.”

The fire chief’s son, Harold Baumgartner, started peddling toward the fire. Ditzel quotes him: “I was blown twenty feet off my bicycle. I got up and started running. The second time it exploded, I was again blown about twenty feet. I ran all the way home as fast as I could. I knew my Dad was in the middle of it all.”

Damage was extensive. The Monsanto plant was leveled. A one-ton drill stem flew two and a half miles through the air and corkscrewed into the ground when it landed. Concrete warehouses became a mass of rubble. A cargo ship, the SS High Flyer collided into a ship across the slip. Flames spewed thousands of feet through 40 acres of storage tanks, laboratories and office buildings. Automobiles burst into flames and all of the town’s fire engines were destroyed. 25 miles to the north in Baytown, nearly every window in town broke. More than a mile from the SS Grandcamp, students at two different schools were hit by flying glass. Many injuries occurred but none were fatal. Firefighters and medical personnel poured into the area. Fifteen hours later everyone was forced to withdraw from the area. The SS High Flyer also hauling ammonium nitrate exploded and disintegrated. Amazingly, only one person died in this second wave of destruction.

The fire burned continuously for a week. The final death toll was 561 and there were over 3,000 injuries. Property losses to industry, businesses and residents exceeded $50 million dollars in the 1947 economy.

In response to the tragedy, regulations were placed on the handling, shipment and manufacturing process of ammonium nitrate. However, four months later, another ship transporting ammonium nitrate caught fire. Steam was applied to douse it but the SS Ocean Liberty exploded. Twenty lives were lost and 500 people were injured.

Ditzel, Paul C. Fire Engines, Firefighters: the Men, Equipment, and Machines, from Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Crown, 1976.
Smith, Dennis. Dennis Smith’s History of Firefighting in America: 300 years. New York: Dial, 1978.

For further information go to "Texas Firefighter Local 1259" where you can find photos and first person accounts.