The second explosive disaster last week — the explosion of ammonium nitrate at a West,Texas, fertilizer warehouse was a case of déja vu for me. Almost 66 years earlier, on April 16, 1947, the French freighter Grandcamp was the first of two freighters to explode at Texas City, Texas. I was 15 at the time, living on the southwest edge of Houston. The explosion shook the ground and rattled windows in Houston, 40 miles away.
In both cases, firemen were on the scene, trying to extinguish fires. The master of the SS Grandcamp vetoed the use of water, and had his ship’s hold sealed. He ordered steam pumped into the hold in an attempt to smother the fire. We don’t know what happened at West, but it seems possible that the volunteer firemen in West were not aware that an ignition was all that was needed to cause a combination of the chemical and water — or steam — to detonate.
Before the day was done in Texas City, a second freighter loaded with ammonium nitrate also exploded. The explosions and resulting fires claimed 576 known dead and flattened over a thousand buildings in Texas City. Twenty-six firemen were killed in the initial blast, and when the second ship exploded, there was no fire department to combat the flames.
It still ranks as the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.
The death toll in West is about 12, including several firemen. Five blocks near the explosion were flattened. The deliberate explosions in Boston were more dramatic, but the victims and survivors in West, Texas, deserve our prayers also.