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Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound used in both fertilizer and military-grade explosives. It was used extensively in World War Two by the U.S. military to destroy Axis equipment and infrastructure. Not as stable as more recently-developed plastic explosives, it reacts explosively when set on fire. After the war, it continued to be produced for farm use. Now reclassified for agriculture, regulations regarding its handling were relaxed, and transport precautions slackened. This is what led to the 1947 explosion that left nearly 600 Texans dead and thousands injured, and it happened in Galveston Bay when a Liberty ship was being loaded with a cargo that included a massive tonnage of the explosive.


Texas City's port on Galveston Bay had already experienced trouble caused by workplace hazards.  Only two days before the explosion, a loose cigarette had sparked a fire on the docks.  Then, on the morning of April 16, the freighter Grandcamp was in port to take on a cargo of ammonium nitrate, tobacco, and government ammunition.  Smoke was spotted deep in one of the holds, and a firefighting effort began.  Extinguishers were grabbed and some water was used, but in an act of criminal negligence and reckless endangerment, hoses were not used for fear of ruining any of the 2,300 tons of cargo already loaded aboard the ship.  The crew attempted to remove the ammunition and restrict oxygen to the hold, not realizing ammonium nitrate creates its own oxygen.  Steam was piped into the hold instead of water.  However, this may have only converted the ammonium nitrate into nitrous oxide, making the situation even more dangerous.

Despite, or even because of, efforts to put out the fire, it reached the fertilizer, and at 9:12 a.m. detonated it.

The explosion killed everyone on board as well as the dockworkers instantly, including 28 of the 29 volunteer firefighters, launched the ship's 1.5 ton anchor two miles, threw a nearby ship clear out of the water, and was heard as far away as 150 miles, though some survivors had been as close as 70 feet to the docks.  Two sightseeing planes were forced out of the sky.  Most people killed in the disaster were not in the blast radius but died as a result of the debris, or, in the case of the Monsanto Corporation chemical storage facility that was struck by flaming debris killing 234 out of its 574 employees, secondary explosions touched off by the debris.  Oil refineries were hit and 500 homes were destroyed by shrapnel traveling at supersonic speeds.  The Grandcamp explosion pushed a sister ship, the High Flyer, also carrying an explosive cargo, completely across the harbor.  Once the vessel came to rest her crew abandoned ship, but failed to notice they had a fire of their own which burned all night before exploding on the 17th, killing two.

Out of at least 581 people killed in the explosion, 113 were never found, and of those that were, 63 of the bodies were unidentifiable.  It is possible that a number of transient individuals were killed in the explosion as well such as tourists, the homeless, and illegal immigrants.  1,784 people were checked into 21 nearby hospitals out of the 5,000+ people who were injured.  The explosion caused $100,000,000 in damages.  The disaster made national news, and donation offers came from all over the country.  Mafia boss Sam Maceo set up one of the largest fundraising efforts, organizing a benefit featuring entertainers such as Phil Harris, Frank Sinatra and Ann Sheridan.  Both the Grandcamp's anchor and the High Flyer's propeller now sit in a memorial park.

1. "Texas City disaster - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia," accessed May 31, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_City_disaster 2. "Fertilizer explosion kills 581 in Texas - Apr 16, 1947 - HISTORY.com," HISTORY.com, accessed May 31, 2015, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fertilizer-explosion-kills-581-in-texas