I am not sure when Jim Bell wrote this experience. I have not changed any of it except a few commas and periods. I have kept it just as he wrote it.
WHAT HAPPENED APRIL 16, 1947
Personal experience of Jim Bell, Patrolman, Texas City Police Dept.
I was on routine patrol and I received a call from the dispatcher at 8:35 A. M. There was a north-northwest northern that blew in and a brisk 20-mile wind, but it was a beautiful cloudless day. A day when just to be alive seemed good.
The call was to escort the fire truck to the Texas City docks, so I picked up the fire truck at 5th Ave. No. and took them down 6th St. to dock road to the Grand Camp that was burning at pier "O" in the north slip. The firemen went aboard ship on top. I was standing by my motorcycle number 754. Mr. Voiles our city commissioner was there.
I received a call from the dispatcher to go to 3rd St. and 4th Ave. So. And direct traffic, and let no one in that area. About that time Officer W. A. Reeves came up and said he would stay there and that was the last time I saw Officer Reeves until I found him laying across the railroad tracks.
The officers on duty that beautiful April morning was Chief W. L. Ladish, Mrs. Ann Bronson the radio dispatcher, Officer J. M. Wright who was in car 752, J. M. Bell on motorcycle number 754, Officer W. A. reeves in car 753, Other officers were Sgt. J. G. McKee, Sgt. Willoughby, E. S. Buckley, C. C. Giggs, F. T. Farrow, C. W. Jones, W. M. Christman, S. D. Gibson, Gaile Steinback and Willie Cole.
At 9:12 A. M. I was at the intersection of 3rd St. And 4th Ave. So. My motorcycle was headed east on the west side of the intersection on the kickstand when the explosion went off. It knocked me about 12 to 20 feet between the levy, which was about 4 feet high, and my motorcycle. I laid there unconscious for about 5 or 10 minutes. When I looked up I saw red streaks of fire shoot across the sky to the west and it hit a fuel tank at Southport. I saw black specs the sky. I then tried to get up but I couldn't even raise up on my hands, it felt like there was someone standing on my back.
After I got up the building on the corner of 4th Ave. So. And 3rd St. So. Was down to the ground so I just laid there, and when the shrapnel stopped falling. I got up and when I started to get on my motorcycle half the seat was gone, I cranked it up and went up 6th St. and everywhere I looked glass was all over the street, windows all knocked out, people all running and screaming, blood running down their faces. I lived at 704 1st Ave. No. I went by the house, no one was home. I went on to the police station and Chief Ladish was sitting in the courtroom blood running down his face. The dispatcher Mrs. Burnson was gone; the Chief said, "What happened?" I told him the ship was on fire and exploded. The Chief told me to go to the barn and get ahold of the engineer who was Mr. Osburn. I told Mr. Osburn that if he could get a bulldozer and push some dirt over a ditch so I could get a truck in and pick up the injured. So I went by Mitchells Service Station and picked up a bus and drove it to 4th Ave. So. And 3rd St. So. And loaded it with people that were badly injured. I took a busload to the rear of the police station under some trees where first aid stations had been set up by the Forth Army Headquarters. After that I went back down there, this was about 10:20 A. M., looking for Officer W. A. Reeves. I knew he was down there somewhere. I started walking and looking, people were laying all around on the ground with no arms, no heads, all under rubbish and half covered up and stinking like B. O. beef. The place was all covered with oil and everything was so black you couldn't tell a black from a white. I just kept walking and I heard someone cry out for help, I walked over and this person called my name, he said, "Bell for Gods sakes what happened?" I said, "Bill reeves?" We all call him "Bill"; he said, "I think my arms and legs are all broken." I said "Bill, I am going to make you as comfortable as I can" so I straightened out his legs and put a pillow under his head and folded his arms across his body, then went for some help. I got the flat bed truck to pick him up and take him out. All that day I helped to dig for bodies and carry out bodies to the morgue, which was the gym at the high school, 400 block of 6th St. No. and the McGar garage on 5th Ave. No. in the 600 block. I was escorting the ambulances to and from the dock area.
That afternoon sometime I don't know, for I was so darn exhausted I didn't know what time, but Sgt Pickens came and got me to go with him. Someone said there was a plane a little way from where we were standing. It was 50 feet northeast from where I was; it fell in back of Mr. Mitchells house. So Sgt. Pickens and I went over to the place and there were two persons in the plane, bones was stuck out of their back and legs were all broken up. We had a time pulling them out for his legs were wrapped around the foot peddle and brake. After we go them out we were looking around on 4th Ave. So. West from where I was standing. I found a car parked on the north side of the street headed west with two persons in it. Their heads were cut off with a piece of metal from the ship. From the Stone Oil Company tanks near the foot of 6th St (Main) St. black smoke and flames shot very high in the air.
About 6 P.M. the Coast Guardsmen reported the High Flyer was on fire which the Wilson B. Keene, another ship that was in pier A. At 8 P.M. word got out that there was ammonium nitrate on the ship, but it was ammunition and the word spread. You could hear that night that another ship is going to blow up. At about 10:30 P.M. a cutting crew came up and tried to cut the High Flyer from the Wilson B. Keene trying to move it out.
About 11:45 P.M., I was called in to the Chief's office with Chief Ladish and captain V. J. Shown. Chief Ladish said, "Bell, you know how to get down to the area where the Wilson B. Keene is? There's a payroll on that ship on the second deck. Will you volunteer to go with Captain Shown and four other volunteer men?" I told him I would so we went down 6th St. to dock road and went to the Wilson B. Keene that was in pier A, this was about 12:45 A. M. When we got down to the second deck and started to open the door there was a rumbling and roaring and the yellowish gray smoke rolled out. Captain Shown said "Shut the damn door and get the hell out of here, tell everyone to get out of the dock area."
I got in a patrol car with Charles Biggs and we were going west on Texas Ave. and 6th St. when it went off, the Wilson B. Keene and the High Flyer. At 1:10 A.M. there were two explosions, the High Flyer disintegrated and half of the Wilson B. Keene rose up out of the slip and traveled over warehouse "B" and landed about 300 feet away on some boxcars, the bow station of Wilson B. Keene remained in the slip.
The rescue squads had hurried back into the area, the army searchlights were destroyed in the blast, and all we were working with was from the flames of burning tanks all through the night. The rescue squads and firefighters were at work the next morning about 6:00 A.M. and on Thursday the fire at Stone Oil Company went out.
A humble gas oil tank flared up at 11:30 A. M. that morning flames shot upward over 2500 feet and at 10:00 P.M. the firefighters succeeded in putting out the fire.
Friday morning after fighting fire and searching for bodies, I got on my motorcycle and rode up 6th St. I was in the 400 block of 6th St. and a lady came running out from the curb and grabbed me around my neck and shouting "Thank God your are alive, when you turned me and my mother away from there, I knew you were killed." About that time around 11:00 A.M. after thirty-six hours without any sleep and no rest, my aunt from Dallas and Dad drove up. I was dirty and needed a shave. We began to look for Ruth (my wife) and the baby. I found them over at her sisters on 8th Ave. No. She was all right except a cut on her forehead.
On Saturday morning at the school gymnasium there were identification officers still at work trying to identify bodies. On Saturday evening over at the high school football stadium there were about 300 people praying for their loved ones. I guess I slept for about 20 hours for when I got up I sure had rested good. I took a few days off and got my house straightened up. I was back at work with the Texas City Police Department April 19, 1947. I stayed with the police department until June 1, 1950 then went to work for the Tin Smelter as a guard until January 1, 1951 when I went to work for the county as a County Highway Patrolman until 1956. I ran for Constable of Precinct #5 of Galveston County, Texas City, and LaMarque. After winning the election I took office January 1, 1957 and have been Constable ever since. I have been in Law-Enforcement in Galveston County for twenty-nine years and have enjoyed every bit of it, except April 16, 1947. The good Lord was with me then, I guess he wanted me to carry on the work I was doing, I tank the Lord that he has let me do so. "Thank You, My true version of the explosion and what a disaster it was.
To those well remembered dead, heralded into eternity by thunderous explosion and roaring flames in the great Texas City Disaster of April 16, 17, 1947