Remembering the Texas City explosion that killed hundreds

Seventy-seven years ago this week, the worst industrial disaster in American history happened about 200 miles from Austin when a ship exploded.

TEXAS CITY, Texas — April 16 is a day still remembered in Texas City – the day of an unimaginable disaster.

It happened during prosperous times for the growing oil, shipping and chemical industry in Galveston County in 1947. Texas City was a growing town of 16,000 where many of the residents worked at chemical and petroleum plants that had sprouted up along the ship channel during World War II.

In mid-April 1947, a French freighter, the Grand Camp, docked at Texas City to take on a heavy load of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. But as longshoremen loaded the ship on April 16, the smell of smoke filled the air.

A small fire had broken out deep inside the Grand Camp. The captain ordered that steam be used to smother the fire, which created a brightly colored smoke that drew people to the dock to watch.

Then the unimaginable happened: an explosion so powerful that it was heard 210 miles away in Louisiana. Flaming debris ignited oil storage tanks and a chemical plant nearby. Hundreds died that day, most of them bystanders who had come to watch the fire burn.

No one knows exactly how many perished in the explosion and multiple fires. Some estimates place the death toll at 600, but no identifiable traces were ever found of the 100 or so people who were closest to the ship when the blast occurred.

Today, seven decades later, there is a memorial park in Texas City dedicated to a time that lingers in memory and that includes the 3,000-pound anchor of the Grand Camp, which had been blown nearly 2 miles away from the ship when it exploded.

This past Sunday, longtime residents and the family members of those who died, gathered at a church in Texas City to remember that terrible day in April, 77 years ago this week.

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