Texas City Disaster

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: July 1, 1995

One of the worst disasters in Texas history occurred on April 16, 1947, when the ship SS Grandcamp exploded at 9:12 A.M. at the docks in Texas City. The French-owned vessel, carrying explosive ammonium nitrate produced during wartime for explosives and later recycled as fertilizer, caught fire early in the morning, and while attempts were being made to extinguish the fire, the ship exploded. The entire dock area was destroyed, along with the nearby Monsanto Chemical Company, other smaller companies, grain warehouses, and numerous oil and chemical storage tanks. Smaller explosions and fires were ignited by flying debris, not only along theindustrial area, but throughout the city. Fragments of iron, parts of the ship's cargo, and dock equipment were hurled into businesses, houses, and public buildings. A fifteen-foot tidal wave caused by the force swept the dock area. The concussion of the explosion, felt as far away as Port Arthur, damaged or destroyed at least 1,000 residences and buildings throughout Texas City. The ship SS High Flyer, in dock for repairs and also carrying ammonium nitrate, was ignited by the first explosion; it was towed 100 feet from the docks before it exploded about sixteen hours later, at 1:10 A.M. on April 17. The first explosion had killed twenty-six Texas City firemen and destroyed all of the city's fire-fighting equipment, including four trucks, leaving the city helpless in the wake of the second explosion. No central disaster organization had been established by the city, but most of the chemical and oil plants had disaster plans that were quickly activated. Although power and water were cut off, hundreds of local volunteers began fighting the fires and doing rescue work. Red Cross personnel and other volunteers from surrounding cities responded with assistance until almost 4,000 workers were operating; temporary hospitals, morgues, and shelters were set up.

Probably the exact number of people killed will never be known, although the ship's anchor monument records 576 persons known dead, 398 of whom were identified, and 178 listed as missing. All records of personnel and payrolls of the Monsanto Company were destroyed, and many of the dock workers were itinerants and thus difficult to identify. Almost all persons in the dock area-firemen, ships' crews, and spectators-were killed, and most of the bodies were never recovered; sixty-three bodies were buried unidentified. The number of injured ranged in the thousands, and loss of property totaled about $67 million. Litigation over the Texas City disaster was finally settled in 1962, when the United States Supreme Court refused to review an appeals court ruling that the Republic of France, owner of the Grandcamp,could not be held liable for any claims resulting from the explosion. The disaster brought changes in chemical manufacturing and new regulations for the bagging, handling, and shipping of chemicals. More than 3,000 lawsuits involving the United States government, since the chemicals had originated in U.S. ordnance plants, were resolved by 1956, when a special act passed by Congress settled all claims for a total of $16.5 million. Some temporary housing was built and donated to the city, and other housing, docks, warehouses, and chemical plants were rebuilt by 1950. Public commemoration of the event began in June of 1947, when the bodies of the unidentified dead were buried together in a memorial cemetery and park, and in 1991 a new section was added to the park.

American National Red Cross, Texas City Explosion, April 16, 1947 (Washington: Red Cross, 1948). Ivy Stewart Deckard, In the Twinkling of an Eye (New York: Vantage, 1962). Fire Prevention and Engineering Bureau of Texas, Texas City, Texas, Disaster, April 16, 17, 1947 (Dallas, 1947). Ron Stone, Disaster at Texas City (Fredericksburg, Texas: Shearer, 1987). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Elizabeth Lee Wheaton, Texas City Remembers (San Antonio: Naylor, 1948).
Time Periods:

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Anonymous, “Texas City Disaster,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-city-disaster.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995