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Today in History April 16: The Texas Fertilizer Fire

By: Will Vega, Copy Editor

This article was written for The Griffin’s April 16 edition.

74 years ago, a fertilizer-based catastrophe occurred on the Texas coast near Galveston.

That on its own sounds kind of funny before you consider three key points: over 580 people died, up to 4,000 were injured and, no, it wasn’t even manure.

One of the most prominent nitrogen fertilizers in use is ammonium nitrate, created through the Haber-Bosch process invented in the early 20th century. NH4NO3 is a solid crystalline compound with a lot of practical industrial use; while it functions incredibly as an artificial nitrogen fixer for agricultural land, one important employment it saw in the years leading up to the Texas City disaster was as an industrial and military explosive. Nitrogen fertilizer has seen plenty of use as an explosive outside of formal warfare: the ‘95 Oklahoma City bombing, the ‘11 bombing in Delhi and the ‘11 attack in Oslo, Norway.

However, on April 16, 1947, the war was long over and the cargo being loaded onto the French freighter Grandchamp and the SS High Flyer (which netted a combined 3,261 tons of ammonium nitrate and 1,800 tons of sulfur) was bound to aid France’s post-war rebuilding efforts — but that morning at around 8 a.m., the Grandchamp’s crew noticed smoke in the cargo hold.

Dockworkers had noticed beforehand that fertilizer containers were warm to the touch after having been stored in improper conditions. When they started to react, eventually catching fire inside of the hold, the Grandchamp’s captain ordered the crew to snuff the flames out instead of ruining the payload with water. After the blaze grew too much, firefighters boarded and began pumping steam into the ship.

See, NH4NO3 is incredibly susceptible to ignition from warm temperatures and to detonation from shock. It’s also an oxidizer, which renders steam ineffective as an extinguisher. As the pressure and heat in the hold grew, the fire spread rapidly and attracted a crowd along the docks and shore at a distance the townsfolk thought was safe.

At 9:12 a.m., the Grandchamp’s payload detonated. The blast leveled over 1,000 buildings immediately, including a chemical plant whose refineries and tanks ignited. Much of the ship’s 6,000 tons of steel body was launched into the air at speeds approaching that of sound, including the Grandchamp’s anchor, which was blown 1.6 miles into the city. The explosion was heard from 150 miles away by some accounts. (For reference, Rochester is 64 miles away and Syracuse is 136.)

Every Texas City Fire Department member, except for one, was killed immediately. With the fire response devastated, the explosion’s shock ignited the High Flyer’s cargo and 15 hours after the initial blast the second ship blew as well. The fires burned for over a week.

The incident, while rarely spoken of today, was the worst industrial accident to ever occur on U.S. soil and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history.

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