In our recent post reviewing the evolution of workplace safety, we highlighted the catastrophic Texas City port explosion of April 16, 1947. Caused when the freighter Grandcamp caught fire and detonated her cargo of 2,300 pounds of ammonium nitrate, it remains one of the deadliest industrial accidents in world history. Reading that blog post triggered memories for our Supply Chain Vice President, Gulf Coast native Michael Cowser.
“When the explosion occurred, one set of my grandparents lived in the small city of La Marque, just across the highway from many of the Texas City plants and oil tank farms and near where the ships were loaded in the port. Years later, during my childhood visits from New Orleans, we’d often go fishing and crabbing on the Texas City dike. On those outings, we’d always discuss the ship’s propeller and anchor memorials from ‘The Explosion’ as we passed in the car. Their home was miles away from ground zero, yet my grandmother said that the explosion shattered windows in their house; and my grandfather, who was working for the Corps of Engineers on Galveston Island at the time, remembered the ground trembling violently like it does during an earthquake.”
"Their home was miles away from ground zero, yet my grandmother said that the explosion shattered windows in their house; and my grandfather, who was working for the Corps of Engineers on Galveston Island at the time, remembered the ground trembling violently like it does during an earthquake.”
It took hours for Michael’s grandparents and their neighbors to learn what had happened. Hampering the spread of information regarding this unprecedented event: Texas City phone service was suspended as telephone operators were on strike, though operators quickly returned to their posts to facilitate crisis communication and response efforts. Michael says, “We heard stories of brothers and fathers walking home hours after the initial explosion because they’d stayed to help battle the fires, but because of the delay and poor phone service their loved ones presumed they were dead.”
Partly because of the shared family memory but also because of his professional path, Michael has built a reservoir of knowledge on the disaster over the years. He recounts, for instance, that the ship’s explosion and resulting fires spread to nearby industrial facilities including a power plant, chemical plant, and oil refineries. He also shares that the disaster took place before the widespread use of “fail close” and other control valves. This meant that parts of the refinery continued operating, essentially adding fuel to the fire.
Michael continues, “Many of the refinery operators who knew how to shut down the operation were killed, leaving the job to survivors and responders who didn’t understand the inner workings of the plants. So, some firefighters and volunteers were killed because they “didn’t know when to run,” meaning they didn’t understand when the fires were burning tanks and other receptacles holding highly explosive or flammable contents. And some of the fires were burning in places that prevented surviving operators from going in and closing valves that would have shut off the flow of flammable materials from broken pipes that were spraying fire.”
He also recalls from family lore that some townspeople went and stood on the nearby levee to watch as the Grandcamp burned, captivated by the colorful smoke given off by its cargo of burning ammonium nitrate before it exploded. Those “lookie-loos” didn’t know the extent of the horror unfolding before them on that fateful, frightful day. A great expanse of maritime, commercial, and private property was destroyed by the explosion’s fires and resultant calamities.
But even worse was the human toll. The disastrous chain of events killed nearly 600 people and injured thousands more. Victims included seamen, dockworkers, first responders, some of the levee onlookers, and other private citizens unlucky enough to be on hand as disaster struck — a black and white, life and death example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Another casualty of the disaster was sister ship High Flyer, also loaded with ammonium nitrate. The fires spread from the Grandcamp to the second ship, which exploded a day later. Today, the High Flyer’s damaged propeller — one of the memorials Michael first saw as a boy — sits at the Texas City port entrance: a cautionary reminder of the disaster that, in terms of death and destruction, has been likened to the detonation of atomic bombs in World War II.
Visiting that port as a boy piqued Michael’s professional interest in supply chain operations. He says, “Going fishing with my family, I liked to watch the big ships being loaded and unloaded. I wondered what all that cargo was, where in the world it was going, and what all did it take to get it there? Now, I get to answer those questions and resolve those logistics every day.”
“Going fishing with my family... I wondered what all that cargo was, where in the world it was going, and what all did it take to get it there? Now, I get to answer those questions and resolve those logistics every day.”
Michael, who still enjoys fishing with his family, closes on an up note: “I am grateful that a workplace disaster like the one that broke windows in La Marque but also caused so much more damage is unlikely to happen again. As in any industry today — three quarters of a century later — disaster preparedness, emergency response, and safety awareness are critical at every step of the supply chain function — on land, on water, or in the air.” (Ed. note: And, of course, at grandmother’s house!)
History buffs like Michael may enjoy exploring the Texas City disaster story, further. You can learn more here.