The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK


May 3, 2013

The tragedies of April

While watching an intense fire burn at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant on a YouTube video some weeks back, and at the millisecond-sudden blast that killed 14 and leveled a portion of the small town, every firefighter or ex-firefighter in America can relate.

From the rookie volunteer who makes 50 calls a year, to the veteran big-city paid firefighter who faces emergency situations that run into the tens of thousands over a career, the unknown makes firefighting one of the most hazardous professions on our planet.

I did that for 27 years, along with a bunch of dedicated men and women who still do it, 24/7, 365 days a year.

You hope against hope that when you are cooling a structure fire with a charged line, nothing on the other side of that wall is going to blow up.

For a handful of volunteer firefighters and EMTs in that small town in central Texas, their hopes were obliterated in the flash of an eye, in an explosion heard almost 50 miles away.

As tragic and as mind-boggling as that April 17 explosion was, it now moves into the realm of context for an eerily similar explosion that hit the Texas Gulf Coast April 16, 1947 — an explosion that has no peer in the history of industrial accidents, and only stops short of man-made blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Note the irony here: Texas City was one day short on the calendar from the West, Texas, explosion, in which many hundreds of lives were obliterated in a flash.

The West, Texas, fertilizer plant reportedly had an estimated 270 tons of ammonium nitrate stored on the edge of town.

That same substance was used in the domestic terrorist attack that killed 168 and downed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, in another infamous April blast, occurring in a month that now seems to haunt America.

The French-registered SS Grandcamp, a ship re-activated from World War II, was docked at Texas City in 1947, carrying some 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, a common cargo of the day, that was to assist in rebuilding Europe from its recent man-made devastation.

Just 600 feet away was the SS High Flyer, carrying an additional 691 tons of ammonium nitrate, along with sulphur.

Both were moored that day in Texas City because the much larger city of Houston did not permit loading or unloading of the potentially volatile chemical.

According to accounts of the day, the ammonium nitrate, also used in blasting agents, was mixed with clay, petrolatum, rosin and paraffin to avoid moisture caking, and encased in 100-pound paper sacks.

Longshoremen later reported the bags were “warm to the touch” prior to loading on the Grandcamp, and a fire soon broke out on the ship.

Attempts to put out the fire — by the crew and the Texas City Volunteer Fire Department — were futile.

Spectators noted the water around the ship boiling from the heat of the fire, and Gulf waters lapping against the hull vaporized to steam.

The cargo hold and deck began to bulge from the building heat and pressure.

A little more than an hour after the first fire was detected on the ship, the ammonium nitrate detonated without warning, obliterating the port facilities and sending a 15-foot wall of water over 100 miles away.

The blast destroyed the Monsanto Chemical plant and set nearby refineries and chemical tanks ablaze.

One of the Grandcamp’s two-ton anchors was blown 1.62 miles inland.

People in neighboring Galveston were knocked to their knees, and the shock wave was felt 100 miles away in Louisiana — and heard 250 miles away.

That’s right, it would be like an explosion in north Dallas was heard in north-central Oklahoma.

More than 1,000 homes and businesses in the Texas port were destroyed.

While the exact casualty figures will never be known, it was thought 576 people were killed — just 398 identified — with 178 listed as missing.

Virtually everyone in the dock area was killed in the blast, and the number of injured in town reached 5,000.

And, not only had the Grandcamp blown up, hurling 6,350 tons of steel into the air, but the High Flyer exploded 15 hours later as well, hurling one of its massive propellers over a mile. The loss of property reached $1 billion in today’s dollars.

The explosion killed 27 Texas City firefighters who had been on the docks that day fighting the fire — only one firefighter somehow survived the blast — and destroyed all their trucks.

An investigation later found the ship’s crew had sealed off the burning bags of ammonium nitrate to try and save part of the cargo, compounding the explosive threat.

As with all things, we must always look to history to learn from the mistakes of our past.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid

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