Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Texas City Disaster

Location: Bolivar Peninsula RV Park; Crystal Beach, Texas.

This is Stop #11
The Galveston area is always a stop for me when coming or going to Texas. I planned to stay at the Galveston State Park, but the Gulf side camping is closed for re-construction and I didn't want to stay in the Bay Side camping area. So, my old reliable campground is the one I'm at and will be for seven days. I've stayed here several times over the years. I like staying on Bolivar Peninsula since it is less rushed than Galveston. There isn't a lot businesses open on the peninsula during the off season, so if I want a big grocery store or to eat out I have to take the free ferry into Galveston. That's not a problem for me since I like the ferry. 

There isn't a lot that I haven't seen in this area, but there was one thing that I had heard about over the years before I started RV'ing that I wanted to check out. It is in a town about 20 miles away. The town is named Texas City. I don't know why the town founders couldn't get more creative with the name, but it became world famous. The sad thing is the reason it became famous is being forgotten by each generation since it happened. I remember my parents mentioning it a few times over the years as I was growing up. My parents would have been in their early to mid twenties when the disaster happened and would have been living close by this area. I don't know exactly where they were living at the time but do know it was in this part of Texas, with "this part" meaning within 100 miles of here. Both passed away many years ago so I can't ask them any more questions. I wish I could because I never asked enough when they were alive. A lesson learned much too late. 

The disaster is the Texas City explosion that occurred in 1947. The town of Texas City is located on Galveston Bay between Galveston and Houston. It really grew up during World War II when the chemical and oil industries located a lot their plants and storage sites there. It was a deep water port with railroad lines ending at the port. Freighters and tankers would have been a regular site along the bay front during and after the war. But during a few days in 1947, and explosion almost wiped out the entire town. It did kill all of the city's firefighters and destroyed all of the firefighting equipment in town. It injured over 4,000 people and killed almost 600. The actual number is unknown since so many people came and went back then, there is no way of knowing who was there. The explosion set of seismographs as far away as Denver, Colorado and broke windows in Houston. It damaged or destroyed 1,000 homes and businesses. The concussion of the explosion was so great, it destroyed two small airplanes that were flying over the port area. As if the explosion wasn't bad enough, it created a fifteen foot high wave of water that washed inland liked a tidal wave. Pieces of red hot metal was tossed into the air and rained down on adjacent industries and ships setting them on fire and causing secondary explosions. 

Wow, sounds like a bad movie, uh? What could have caused such a great explosion back in 1947? The answer? Fertilizer. Yep, fertilizer. The same type of fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing back in 1995. Most of us that were of age during 1995 were a little shocked by the damage to the federal building in Oklahoma. Then we found out it was caused by about 2 tons of fertilizer (Ammonium Nitrate) stored in a rental truck. The news outlets at the time mentioned something about Texas City, but the real time pictures and news of the OKC bombing drowned out any historical reference. So, the other day, I went in search of that historical reference. 

The crazies that set off the bomb in Oklahoma City used 2 tons of ammonium nitrate. Now imagine what 2,300 tons would do. Well, you don't have to imagine because there are pictures of just such damage. Those 2,300 tons were stowed on the ship, S.S. Grandcamp. The ship was a converted Liberty Ship that the U.S. gave/loaned/sold to France. Remember, we made over 2,700 of those small freighters, we called Liberty Ships during the war so we had to do something with them. A fire started in the cargo hold of the ship. Some say a tossed cigarette by a longshoreman, but nobody probably knows for sure. The fire alarm was sounded and all of the firefighters in Texas City responded. The fire drew spectators to the pier to watch the firemen do their job. Many of those spectators were children. The fire couldn't be put out with the regular firefighter methods because as ammonium nitrate burns it creates its own oxygen which causes the fire to burn hotter and hotter until it explodes. That explosion set off a series of chain reactions. Oil storage tanks were set on fire which exploded, the Monsanto chemical plant exploded, another ship, the S.S. High Flyer was in port for repairs and also carried ammonium nitrate so she was set on fire by the first explosion which eventually caused her to explode. The port facility and town were almost completely destroyed. 

It was the deadliest industrial disaster in U.S. history and one of the largest, non-nuclear explosions, ever. This was seventy years ago and is largely forgotten. At some point in a child's 12 years of schooling, they should be taught about this disaster as a way of showing them that things happen and we must learn from them. Many safety regulations came about because of this disaster, which is good. 

The only thing left to see in Texas City about the disaster is a small memorial maintained by the city. That is what I came to see. I wanted to see what a city and its people do to memorialize such a tragic event. I guess most people that lived through that would want to forget it and not erect monuments as a constant reminder. So, I was happy to see what they did instead of monuments. It is a small cemetery containing 63 caskets of the unidentified dead. Each site has a number corresponding with information contained at the city in case, "a new inquiry were ever necessary, the information would be available."

This is the entrance to the park. The pagoda structure give the history of the event.

This is the anchor from the S.S. Grandcamp. It weighs about 2 tons and the explosion tossed it a little more that
1 1/2 miles away.

The simple entrance to the cemetery portion of the memorial

It's a small memorial and this view covers almost all of it.

I was confused at first because I didn't see any graves. The caskets are laid out in a semi-circle around the pool. Apparently the graves were maintained and protected very well for a while so some of the markers and stones were destroyed or stolen. Eventually, you couldn't tell where the graves were located. The city eventually collected the markers or made replacements and placed them in two locations on either side of the pool. So in a sense, the actual locations of the unknown, is unknown.

Lest we forget.
I think the memorial park is the right way for the city to heal.

Ya'll take care of each other. I'll Cya down the road.   

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the Texas City story, we've never heard of it before. Sad to say right? I'm sure there's no way kids of today will ever know of it. Beautiful pictures to go along with too.