NewsThe West Explosion: A Decade Later


Texas survivors recount deadliest industrial accident in US history

Same chemical at the center of the West explosion
Posted at 5:27 PM, Apr 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-16 22:25:25-04

TEXAS CITY, Texas — The West explosion isn't the first time ammonium nitrate destroyed a small Texas town. In fact, the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history happened 76 years ago, about 40 miles outside of Houston.

The Texas City disaster killed at least 581 people and injured more than 5,000 people. It's a pain and loss you can feel in the air – a tension under the surface.

"You may come to grips with it, or you may think you're dealing with it, but it will come back to haunt you," said Billie Powers with the Texas City Museum. "You never get over it. You just deal with it."

Ghosts from a darker time still there to remind the living. To understand it — you have to go back just after WWII.

In 1947, France and much of Europe are in ruin with millions starving and in need of fresh food.

"You do what you have to do to survive," said Dr. Sarah Fishman, a professor of European history at the University of Houston. "France was still primarily a nation of small family farms, and they were short of everything. Labor, fertilizer, anything that makes it easier to farm."

Texas City was on the front lines of the fight against hunger – shipping ammonium nitrate fertilizer to farms overseas.

On the morning of April 16th, 1947, one ship in port sat waiting, loaded with dangerous cargo.

"It was a french ship, the Grandcamp," said Amanda Vance, curator of the Texas City museum. "They were loading up sacks of ammonium nitrate. In the war, it was used to make bombs, but what they were shipping it for was for fertilizer."

At 8 a.m. dockworkers notice smoke coming from the ship's cargo hold. The Grandcamp's captain orders the hatches sealed and steam to pumped into the hold, hoping to choke the flames – instead the fertilizer starts to liquefy.

"I was just a kid. I wasn't even in school yet." said Rachel Hernandez, a survivor of the disaster, about that morning. "I remember my aunt taking me by my hand and running. And i remember turning back and looking at the smoke. It was so beautiful. It was black and orange, and it was just really pretty."

Around 8:30 a.m., crowds come out to watch the red-orange smoke, while fire crews battle the flames spreading across the ship.

At 9:12 a.m., disaster.

Over 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate explode in an instant, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. The explosion is one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history.

"I heard this loud noise and a shaking of the ground," said Ernestine Moreno about the first explosion. "I found that everyone around me was dead except me, and all I could think of is, 'Why me and who am I?'"

As Texas City burned, people searched for their loved ones amid scenes some witnesses compared to that of the atomic bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

"When the first explosion went off, we went over to my grandmother's and they went out looking for my grandfather but they never found him," said Eleanore Wuthrich, a survivor. "That was rather traumatic even as a 5-year-old. I remember always praying, 'Please bring Papi back. Let us find where he is.' He was just one of the unknown."

As the search for survivors continued, the danger wasn't over. Another ship, the High Flyer, loaded with ammonium nitrate in the port of Texas City drifted toward the fire and burned debris.

More than 15 hours after the first explosion, Ben Kaplan, news director of KTHT radio, captured what happened live on air.

"Here comes another explosion. The sky (boom) have just heard it," Kaplan said during the broadcast. "We are bending down. The sky is like broad daylight. No one knows what it is or where we are. We have all hit the prayers."

Rescue workers used the high school gym as a morgue, and the military sealed to the town as the search continued.

But for the small town of Texas City, it was tragedy that brought them together.

"They pulled together on that day like a team," Powers said about the days and weeks after the two explosions. "So, when other towns were having trouble with integration, it didn't happen here. They were already bonded."