Daily Event for April 16, 2006

The Liberty ship Benjamin R. Curtis took to the water for the first time at the California Shipbuilding Corp. on Nov. 3, 1942. Liberty ships were the backbone of the American supply chain in World WarII, but after the war they were sold to companies around the world. They were not glamorous ships by any stretch of the imagination but they did their job.

In January of 1947 the Benjamin R. Curtis was sold to the French Government and renamed Grandcamp, it is this name that made her infamous. In the early morning hours of April 16, 1947, only four months after being sold, the Grandcamp was docked at Texas City, Texas loading ammonium nitrate. The cargo, as we all know now, was highly explosive. (Ammonium Nitrate was the chemical fertilizer used to blow up the Murrow building in Oklahoma City.)

Somehow a fire started in the hold of the ship, the cause still unknown, and the crew made attempts to put it out. After some time, nobody really knows how long, the local fire dept. was called. Arriving on the scene they were unaware of the cargo the Grandcamp was carrying. The crowd that had gathered dockside to watch all the excitement did not know either. If they had known perhaps the school children would not have been there watching.

Almost all of the Texas City fire dept. were there at 09:11 fighting a fire they could not put out. Inside the Grandcamp an inferno raged causing the ship's hull to be hot enough to evaporate water on contact. The ship should have been towed out into the harbor for safety but it had not been. It was there at the dock in Texas City, a major petrochemical port. At 09:12 the Grandcamp, the Texas City fire dept., and all the people watching the fire were vaporized by a tremendous explosion.

The fireball is said to have risen over 2,000' into the sky and a mushroom cloud, reminiscent of Hiroshima, loomed over the city. The Monsanto factory, adjacent to the docks, was set ablaze and, before the fires were put out a week later, was totally destroyed. The blast was felt in Galveston and Bay Town and the smoke could be seen all the way to Houston, 50 miles away.

With almost all of the fire dept. gone, Texas City had to rely on crews from neighboring cities, including Houston, but it took time to get to the scene. When they arrived they had another problem. The High Flyer, a second ship loaded with the same cargo, was burning at the dock. This time the serious nature of what could happen was known and an attempt was made to tow her out of the dock. The High Flyer however would not move, even after her anchor chains were cut she refused to budge. A heroic effort was made, but finally the men on board the High Flyer had to be removed.

A little after 1 a.m.the High Flyer exploded causing even more destruction. This time oil storage tanks located near the docks were set afire and later exploded. The conflagration was unlike anything ever witnessed in the U.S.A. and Texas City was destroyed as a useful port. Almost every building in town was damaged and every family was effected by the tragedy in some way.

The total of people killed and missing has never been known, but it is clear that over 600 were killed.

© 2006 Michael W. Pocock

SS Grandcamp just before the explosion.