TIME Magazine, April 28, 1947, p. 22:|
NATIONAL AFFAIRS: DISASTER: "Pluperfect Hell!"
The morning sun shone warm and bright. It looked like another great day for the war-fat Gulf port town of Texas City, Tex.— "The Port of Opportunity." Stores were busy, prosperous people "howdy'd" one another in the streets. Down along the waterfront, $125 million worth of oil refineries, tin smelters and chemical plants labored mightily to assure Texas City's future. Down there too was the only small blot on the day— the French freighter Grandcamp, loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer and docked some 700 ft. from the great Monsanto Chemical Co. plant, was afire.
At first only the crew, the longshoremen and the local fire department troubled about the Grandcamp. But as the smoke rolled blacker, some 200 people gathered at the dock to watch. By 9 a.m., the fire fighters, who knew something about the explosive fury of nitrate, figured they had better move the ship out into Galveston Bay. Twelve minutes later it was too late.
In one tremendous thunderclap, the Grandcamp vanished. Hot steel screamed uptown. A flaming wall of oil-covered water rolled over the docks as the blast picked up a steel barge and flung it 100 yards inland. Two light planes that had been circling over the harbor plummeted down together with 300-lb. chunks of ship's steel. Then, in a splitting series of explosions (one of which flipped a fire truck on top of the beached barge), the Monsanto plant and most of the rest of the waterfront blew up.
Flame & Invisible Force. The next minutes were a vortex of sound, flame and rushing, invisible force. The bodies of the dock crowd, limbs and clothes torn off by the blast, were strewn for half a block. In the ruins of the Monsanto plant, buildings sagged slowly down on 800 workers. In adjacent refineries, gasoline and oil tanks shot up like rockets, walls fell, pipes curled up and writhed like snakes, and black and red fire licked greedily over the ground.
Uptown, a mile away, the manager of the White House department store was blown through the post office door. The invisible force smashed the doors and windows of the First State Bank and scattered money all over the floor. It tossed Mrs. Tina Lide out through a second-story window, twisted the steel roof beams of the auditorium, puffed in the roof and a wall of the Jewel Theater, knocked out the gas, light and water systems and pancaked rows of houses.
A telephone operator flashed neighboring Houston: "For God's sake, send the Red Cross."... Trucks loaded with dead rumbled by and sound trucks bellowed warnings through the streets:
—-The High Flyer, a nitrate-laden sister of the Grandcamp, was afire and might explode any minute.
—-The butane tanks were about to blow up, and poison gases would be released.
Planeloads of Plasma. An emergency hospital was set up in the City Hall as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, doctors, nurses, Texas Rangers with pearl-handled revolvers, planeloads of plasma and mobile kitchens began to arrive. The windowless high school gymnasium was swept clean— it would do for a morgue while the embalmers worked for hours, foot-deep in blood in the McGar garage...
Outside was chaos and the incongruities inseparable from disaster... After dark, the inevitable looters worked the ruins.
By midnight, some of the people who had fled Texas City began to drift back. Some ignored police warnings that the waterfront was "pluperfect hell" and went down to help. Hundreds of grimy, gas-masked men, stupid with fatigue, still labored there— probing for severed legs, torsos, heads, in the red glow of the unquenchable fire. Sometimes squads of rescuers staggered for cover when a change of wind whipped the blistering heat around. Among them was Father William Roach, of St. Mary's Catholic Church. Father Roach died with his rescue squad when, at 1:11 a.m., the High Flyer mushroomed like a Bikini bomb.
Primitive Terror. The High Flyer explosion, which was recorded by a seismograph in Denver, did more than sink a neighboring freighter and rake the remains of Texas City. It stirred a primitive terror. A wild evacuation jammed the roads out of town.
By morning, the people left in Texas City tried to count their dead. There were 200 bodies in the gym. They lay in blanketed rows, each body tagged with a yellow identification slip.* The smell of smoke and blood hung thick over the relatives bending to look at the tags...
What had caused the blast? The Coast Guard would say nothing, except that seamen, who had not been warned of the danger of nitrate cargoes... had been smoking on board the Grandcamp.
As for the price, by week's end there were 575 estimated dead, 3,000 injured, 295 missing. Property damage was incalculable, although insurance companies prepared to pay a minimum of $50 million in claims. The homes, the stores, the restaurants, the movies— whole parking lots full of cars— all were ruined or badly damaged...
And in the ruined center of town, the big clock on the Magnolia garage was still stopped dead at 9:13.
*The slips were parking tags from the nearby Port Arthur police department, and bore the sentence: "You have violated a traffic law."
TC Firefighters Local 1259:Texas City Disaster, w/photos
Houston Chronicle: new photos
UH: Texas City Disaster Photos
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