Please note that everything on this page came from the book Texas City Remembers, by Elizabeth Lee Wheaton and was published about a year later in 1948. This is important to remember as I have transcribed the book word for word. The grammer, spelling and use of words were a little different from todays. I did this so as to preserve the time frame and history as much as possible. This book can be checked out at the Moore Memorial Library in Texas City.
Texas City Remembers (1948 version)
A complete story of the Texas City Disaster can never be told. The tragedy
of death and destruction was performed on too big a stage for one mind to comprehend
and recount the whole of it. Radio newsmen have chronicled well what they saw
and heard. Newspaper reporters and magazine writers have tried to put the tale
on paper. In their haste to meet a deadline, all have conveyed much that is
inaccurate, have left much untold. Rumors were rife. The imaginative made wild
statements, such as an allegation that the Monsanto Chemical Company exploded.
(The Monsanto Plant did roar into flame immediately after the ship explosion,
and there were many small explosions within the plant.) In contrast to the explosion
of the Grand Camp and of the High Flyer, the explosions in the Monsanto Plant
were as popguns to cannons.
Two questions have been asked repeatedly: Why did not the Port officials warn the spectators - innocent men, women and children - that the Grand Camp would blow up? Why did not the Port officials and employees get the ship out of the harbor before she blew up?
Both questions can be answered by another question: Would so many of the Port officials and employees have remained to die, had they known or suspected that the ship would explode?
Hundreds of ships have been afire, or have had fires in their cargoes, at Texas City wharves. Bulk sulphur cargoes often ignite. Oil and gasoline tankers and many other ships have suffered fires. Mostly, The fires were inconsequential. A few were serious and costly. Always before, the fires have been fought and brought under control. With a fire to fight, no ship's master has ever been ordered to take his vessel from a Texas City wharf, out of reach of firemen and help from shore. But assuredly, had the firefighters or the Port officials expected any such disaster, there were brave fools among them who would have cast off her lines and sailed her out of the harbor.
Much of the story has been told in pictures. Pictures can portray damage to property and show human disfigurement, but they cannot disclose the horror and despair of human beings discovering they have lost arms, legs, eyes; nor can pictures convey the full tragedy of a wife hopelessly searching among headless, limbless torsos for the body of her mate. Even words are pitifully inadequate to express such depths of mental anguish.
It would require a large library to compile a full record of all the acts of heroism, of man and women who forgot their own suffering and terror in the service of others. Many came from far and near, just to help. Some were grievously wounded, a few were killed trying to save others, fellow humans they have never known. There were a few who came in search of purses to pocket, of bodies to rob of valuables. Rings that might have identified were stripped from lifeless fingers.
In small boats, rowed all the way from Galveston, stealthy ghouls slipped in to rob the twisted bodies of the dead by the light of flaming embers of the splintered rubble. If a police officer disgraced his uniform, pilfering from the dead he had volunteered to guard, the number on his shield, the city whence he came, shall be unnamed - lest in the telling dishonor be reflective on his city and its detachment of brave men who earned the gratitude of Texas City in her hours of sorest need. Withal, and thanks to the help of detachments of state, country and city police from many sources, there was little pilfering.
There were contrasts of nobility in tragedy and greed: of the heartaches of survivors of the missing committing their loved dead to God, and body snatchers who made sure of a corpse to bury - anything, once a man, that would aid them to collect life insurance moneys; of men with horrible injuries standing aside that others might first be cared for, and a very few with sordid schemes to make quick profit by disaster; of the maimed, with bloody stumps, who applied makeshift tourniquets to stop the bleeding of a fellow worker's wounds, and the uninjured terrorized who simply ran, with thought of neither wife nor child nor friend; of those who went in, with insides churning, to gather up the fallen, and those who hitchhiked into a desolate area, lied and wept for relatives and friends that never were, to live a few days on the largess of the Salvation Army or Red Cross.
No adequate tribute can be paid to the thousands who help in myriad ways, many of whom stole quietly in and out, leaving no record of their coming save in good deeds, asking no thanks for contributions of time, money, or work dangerously done. To these, the kindly ones who came, who did what they could, paid in many cases by their God alone and their own consciences, this book is dedicated. Texas City Remembers, and we thank you.
- ELIZABETH LEE WHEATON
What the People Said and Did
For the People, by the People
By the Community, State and Nation Part One
By the Community, State and Nation Part Two
By the Community, State and Nation Part Three
Lest We Forget
United We Stand
In God We Trust
Annals of Texas City
Wednesday, April 16, 1947, dawned clear and cool at Texas City, Texas. A late
norther blew briskly, a 20-mile wind out of the north-northwest, but it was
a beautiful day, and cloudless. A day when just to be alive seemed good.
The French steamship Grand Camp lay peacefully at Pier "O" in the ports north slip. She was a 10,419 DWT Liberty, 441 feet long, waiting for a load of fertilizer. At Antwerp, she had picked up cargo for various ports, including 16 cases of small arms ammunition destined for La Guaira, Venezuela. She had stopped at Havana to load an automobile and a small quantity of general cargo. At Matanzas, Cuba, she had taken on 59,000 bales (950 tons) of sisal binder twine in large balls. At Houston, Texas, she had loaded 380 bales of cotton, 9334 bags of shelled peanuts, and a quantity of oil well, refrigerating and farm machinery. She had arrived at Texas City five days before, and had taken about 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer destined for the war-torn fields of France, and was scheduled to load another 700 tons before proceeding to Galveston to fill her holds completely. About 1420 tons of the fertilizer was n No. 2 hold, and some 880 tons had been loaded in No. 4 hold. It was packed in 100-pound, 6-ply paper bags, marked "Fertilizer, Ammonium Nitrate, Nitrogen 32.5%."
At Pier "A", in the main slip, 500 feet to the south of the Grand Camp, the American steamship High Flyer waited to continue loading knocked-down boxcars for the French railroads. Previously, the High Flyer had taken 900 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. She was an 8794 DWT C-2 cargo vessel, 460 feet long. Her turbines were down for repairs.
Across the slip at Pier "B", 750 feet from the Grand Camp, the American steamship Wilson B. Keene, another Liberty ship, waited to resume loading flour for France.
All was well at eight o'clock, when the day forces relieved the night shift at the Monsanto Chemical Company, Republic Oil Refining Company, and other nearby industries. Along the "Dock Road" longshoremen and warehouse workers had congregated. As eight o'clock whistles blew, the gangs followed their foremen, some to the Grand Camp, some to the High Flyer, others to the Wilson B. Keene. Gangs of warehousemen went to Piers "A" and "B" to unload flour from the boxcars, to Pier "D" to unload fertilizer. In the offices just west of the wharves. The Texas City Terminal Railway Company office workers set about their tasks.
It was just another day. A good day, a day a man felt like working. A good day to be alive.
The longshoremen chosen to work on the Grand Camp trooped aboard. They lifted the covers from the No. 4 hatch. This took about ten minutes. Did they see any smoke in the hold or the hatchway? Some now say they did. Some say the detected an odor as of rags burning. No reports of subsequent action of these men support the theory that they smelled smoke or suspected anything wrong in the hold. Those who were to work below clambered down the ladder, past the oil well and other machinery, stowed in the 'tween deck, into the hold. Others left the deck of the vessel, went ashore, placed the heavy wooden trays, began to load the trucks. In the hold four men commenced stowing bags already in the hold on the port side. On the starboard side four other men sat down to await the first tray load of fertilizer to come aboard.
When and how did the fire start? Perhaps it was sabotage, an infernal machine,
set to burn the ship. The crew smoked on deck; possibly a careless crew member
threw a match or a butt, with force enough to reach the sides of the vessel
- while hanging by his toes from the hatch combing. It would be practically
impossible to stand on deck and throw either a match or a butt such a distance.
The weight of the sacks, stacked one on another, may have started decomposition and spontaneous combustion. If so, why did not the same thing happen in No. 2 hold, or the holds of numerous other ships, which have loaded the same commodity?
Maybe the fire had been smoldering all night, and came to life when the hatch covers were removed. What if ammonium nitrate is also used in explosives as an oxidizer to promote combustion where there is no air? Even if ammonium nitrate burns without air, who can say what a fire will do?
More than 75,000 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been loaded at Texas City in the preceding few months, without incident. Small wonder if some of the men thought the "No Smoking" signs on the wharf did not apply on the ship. It will never be known for certain, but it is not unlikely that someone smoked.
If anyone living knows just how the fire started, he is concealing the knowledge. It is not the purpose of this account to fix blame.
One theory is that one of the longshoremen, waiting in the hold of the ship, lit a cigarette, flipped the match over behind the sweatboards, the slats that hold the cargo away from the moisture which condenses on the steel sides of the vessel. Bit of paper, lint, twine and other refuse accumulate behind the sweatboards. The paper bags containing the fertilizer were inflammable.
A thin ribbon of smoke drifted upward along the inshore side, behind the sweatboards. One of the longshoremen noticed it, called out an alarm. Some of the ship's crew hurried into the hold, ordered some of the 100-pound bags of fertilizer to be moved in search of the source of the smoke. Without effect, a soda acid extinguisher was emptied. One or two pails of drinking water were doused in the direction of the source of the ribbon of smoke. Someone called for buckets. Fire pails were lowered into the hold. Were the fire pails full of water? Some were not.
"They asked for buckets, not water."
The fire grew rapidly. A hoseline was called for and dangled into the hatchway. The ship's first mate forbade the use of the hoseline. No water lest the cargo be damaged.
The hatch filled with acrid smoke. Choking, coughing, shouting, the men clambered up the ladder. Someone ordered the hatch covers replaced. Was it the stevedore's foreman? An officer of the vessel? The hatch covers were replaced rapidly, in not over ten minutes, with three tarpaulins battened down over the hatchway.
No water! Turn live steam on it. That would smother a fire. Water, lots of cooling water, would have damaged the cargo and put out the fire. It has not been conclusively determined that steam was used; but if so, it only heated the nitrate, accelerating its decomposition.
The hatch covers blew off, burned off, or were taken off. A golden smoke poured out of the hatchway and drifted across the waterfront. A fire alarm was sounded at 8:33 A.M. President and General Manager H. J. Mikeska of the Texas City Terminal Railway Company and many port employees hurried to the scene where fire threatened port facilities. The Texas City Volunteer Fire Department responded with 2 pieces of equipment. Galveston's Fire Department was asked for a fireboat and firefighting towboats were ordered from Galveston.
Before the police could block the roads to the wharf area, crowds of spectators gathered at the west side of Pier "O", a safe 450 to 600 feet from the vessel.
A warning was passed among the longshoremen. There was ammunition on the ship. She might blow up.
The sixteen cases of small arms ammunition in No. 5 hold played no part in subsequent events. At a Coast Guard hearing a few days later, en expert testified that small arms ammunition is not a dangerous commodity and if exploded would probably not injure a person 10 feet away. But the word "ammunition" is terrifying. The fear of it saved many lives. It is reported that some effort was made to remove the ammunition before the longshoremen left the ship.
Were the longshoremen ordered to stand by, or to leave the ship? Or did they leave because of the ammunition? Many did leave the ship and go home, passing among spectators. Some volunteered warnings, and a few of the spectators left, fearful of the explosion of the ammunition.
It is reported that the Captain of the Grand Camp ordered the crew to abandon ship. It is thought that all of the crew got off the ship, but that they stood on the wharf to watch the fire. A few of them went to a nearby waterfront restaurant to drink coffee. Seven of the crew survived the blast, one of whom later died of his injuries.
It would seem that the Captain was not fearful of his ship. He was among those lost.
Burning fragments of paper bags floated high in the air and across the water toward the two nearby ships. On the High Flyer and Wilson B. Keene, the hatch covers were replaced and battened down, and the longshoremen were ordered to stand by. Some walked up to Pier "O" to watch the fire. Hoselines were laid on both ships, with streams of water flowing over the canvas hatch coverings, to extinguish any sparks that might fall.
About 8:37 A.M., an officer of the High Flyer left his ship and walked along the wharf beside the Grand Camp, snapping photographs of the firemen at work, until about 8:50 A.M., when he returned to his ship. Two more of Texas City's four pieces of firefighting equipment arrived. The Republic Oil Refining Company and the Monsanto Chemical Company sent truckloads of foamite and men to assist with fighting the fire. Officials of the Republic Oil Refining Company came to the wharf to offer more help.
By 9:00 A.M., smoke and flames sprouted from the hatchway of the Grand Camp as from a blast furnace. The steel deck of the ship was so hot that water poured on it vaporized instantly into steam.
At 9:12 A.M. the Grand Camp exploded with great violence; seconds later, an even more violent explosion seemed to center in the air high above where the Grand Camp had been. A thunderous rumble followed, as if a bolt of lightening had rent the air. A black pall of smoke blotted out the sun.
Texas City's Fire Chief and 25 of his men who had responded to the fire call, port employees, nearly all who were on the wharf, disappeared, many never to be found. Spectators were blown away. Fire trucks twisted into unrecognizable tangles. Two ambulances and their drivers had been standing by. One driver died in the twisted wreck of his machine. The other is still missing. Two airplanes nearly overhead were shot out of the air like ducks. An immense tidal wave more than fifteen feet high raised up and out of the slip, sweeping with it a rubber-lined steel hydrochloric acid barge 150 feet long, 28 feet wide and 11 feet deep, dropping the barge 150 feet from the water, onto the spot where many spectators had so lately been, and against a large piece of the Grand Camp surmounted by the wreckage of a fire truck. Water poured over the surrounding area, sweeping flat-car bodies from trucks. Water and atomized fuel oil from the ship rained from the heavens. Balls of sisal twine, many afire, were thrown in all directions, starting fire in the wreckage. Some of the burnt twine landed on Pelican Island, over five miles away. Like flaming spider webs across a lawn, for hundreds of feet, the sisal twine spread over buildings, grass and weeds. Large chunks of flaming cotton dropped on wreckage, starting more fires.
For 1200 feet around the Grand Camp missiles weighing from one pound to five tons fell in great numbers, crashing through buildings and human beings, sending geysers of water high into the air throughout the harbor. In this area, distances between fragments were only three to four feet. Over the next 1,000 feet, missiles up to 20 pounds, with a few large ones, were fairly uniformly scattered about 10 feet apart. Beyond 2200 feet, there were fewer missiles. A large section of deck and hatch combing weighing about 20 tons was tossed over 2,000 feet. A few sections of tubing and other projectiles traveled as far as 10,000 feet from the ship. Much of the metal was red hot.
Like frightened animals, the High Flyer and Wilson B. Keene tore loose from their moorings. The High Flyer's stern anchor broke loose, and she drifted against the Wilson B. Keene. A mate on the Wilson B. Keene dropped her bow anchor to stop the ship and swing her into the wharf so the injured could get ashore. Both vessels sustained considerable damage. Their hatch covers were blown off, cabins and forecastles reduced to a tangle of broken wood and doors. Her turbines down for repairs, the High Flyer was helpless without tugs. Debris and twisted wreckage blocked the engine room of the Wilson B. Keene.
The little water-front restaurant disintegrated into kindling wood, burying its customers. The nearby office and warehouse of the Southwestern Sugar and Molasses Company collapsed. The steel and brick Monsanto Chemical Company warehouse was flattened, as was the main power plant. Walls of Monsanto's manufacturing buildings fell; plant, office and laboratory windows shattered; roofs ripped off, pipe lines that carried inflammable liquids twisted apart. Hot missiles and operating fires ignited benzene, ethyl, propane and benzol from the ruptured lines and storage tanks.
Fed by these inflammable liquids, cruel flames pursued those who fled to safety, cremated the fallen, twisted steel supports and girders into gaunt steel skeletons, stark against the sky. The port properties fared no better. Huge warehouses were blasted into twisted steel skeletons. Large sections of concrete Pier 'A" collapsed into a pile of rubble around gaunt reinforcing rods. A two-story office building fell, carrying forty employees to death or injury.
Nearly 4,000 feet to the southwestward, on the Sid Richardson Refining Company's tank farm, an almost empty natural gasoline spheroid tank, pierced by a red-hot missile, exploded. Six small tanks and a still roared into flame at the Stone Oil Company's refinery, 2500 feet to the west. A tank caught fire 3500 feet away in the Southport-Republic Terminal Company's tank farm.
Almost every house within a mile of the explosion either collapsed or was so badly damaged as to he a total loss.
In the business district, roofs collapsed, flying missiles tore holes in buildings. A total of 539 buildings, including homes, were so badly damaged as to be unfit for occupancy. Every plate glass store window was shattered. Nearly every window within a two-mile radius shattered into fragments that shot across rooms, stabbed into humans, furniture, walls, with the force of buckshot from a shotgun. In the schools, glass fragments showered children and teachers, partitions blew down, walls crumbled.
For moments, the awful catastrophe stunned the survivors. Then, in the Monsanto plant, in the water-front properties, the living began to move. Torn and bleeding, covered with oil, men and women got to their feet. Clothes, shoes, had been blown off. Grotesque corpses dangled from wreckage, lay half buried in muck, bobbed gravely in oily pools. Their clothing blown quite away, many were nude. Fragments of bodies, arms, legs, heads, intestines, were everywhere. In a trim, undamaged automobile, sat a decapitated woman and child.
Motivated only by terror, by the inherent will to live, men, women and children who were able to move, stumbled or crept away from the holocaust. A few of the less seriously injured, dazed by shock and terror, worked dully at rescuing the trapped, fighting fires that threatened to roast the living caught beneath heavy debris.
Many with ghastly wounds spent their last ebbing strength helping others. With broken legs, legs blown off, some dragged themselves toward town, toward help. A man with his face half gone walked with head held rigidly erect. Men with bloody shreds for arms, torn faces, bloody torsos, limped and tottered along paths and roads or crawled in weed-grown fields, helping each other to rise; and falling, they in turn were helped. The blinded moved aimlessly, crawling in circles over endless piles of debris so high that those with sight who fell could not descry whither to crawl. A naked woman ran blindly. And ever adding to the horror, the roaring flames spread rapidly.
From the schools, frightened children poured, bleeding, screaming. Frantic parents searched for their young amid the wreckage. The bloody, broken hordes converged upon the clinics. His wife in his arms, a man staggered along, his right hand numb from holding her insides within her slender body. Screaming piteously a woman carried her decapitated babe. A dead baby clutched to her breast, another mother stumbled blindly. Bearing bleeding babes, bleeding mothers hurried toward the doctors.
Rolling from the Stone Oil Company tanks near the foot of Sixth (main) Street, black smoke and flames soared ever high and higher, seeming to advance upon the helpless little city, the fleeing populace.
Even as many scurried in terror from the town, others rushed to the wharves and the Monsanto plant to rescue the injured. Wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, by automobile and afoot, hurried to find loved ones. Carbide, Pan American, Republic, Sid Richardson plants hurriedly organized rescue squads and sent them into the area. Searching for her husband, a woman tore frantically at the wreckage, worked heroically for hours, carrying to safety each victim that she found, and fainted only when at long last she discovered him she sought, a corpse. As a farm boy carries stovewood, seemingly oblivious to danger, a giant Negro tramped tirelessly back and forth, bringing out the maimed and dying. A father, knocked unconscious, was revived by water pouring from a broken hydrant; he picked himself up, stumbled to a windrow of broken boards and cement rube that had been an office building. For hours he fought the fires and pried at timbers searching for a son long since crawled out and home in safety.
Frantic men hurried their families away. A few homeowners went calmly about restoring windows that had been broken in their houses. A woman finished the weeding her garden. A jeweler ordered plate glass windows which were installed in several hours.
In Galveston and Freeport, windows were broken. The shock of the explosion was felt in Palestine, Texas, 160 miles away, Port Arthur, Orange, 100 miles distant. Even at Denver, Colorado, the blast was recorded on the seismograph at Regis College.
Without awaiting an explanation of the explosion, Galveston ambulances raced to the scene, the first arriving at the Republic plant the first victims staggered to the promised safety of the highway. Already, Texas City's two remaining ambulances were shuttling back and forth, aided by trucks and automobiles loaded with oil-covered, maimed, injured and dying.
At the first alarm of fire, Coast Guard vessels had been dispatched to Texas City. Immediately after the explosion, every available boat was ordered to Texas City. The lighthouse tender, Iris, with doctors and nurses aboard, served as a floating hospital, while other craft cruised as close to the burning wharves as possible, picking up persons in the water.
At the clinics, and the little Texas City hospital, the devastating concussion had swept in the windows, churned the equipment. Before the stunned doctors and nurses could attack the chaos, bleeding townspeople swarmed in for aid, quickly filling waiting rooms. Hundreds milled about outside, unable to get in. Then those from Monsanto and the wharves began to arrive. Awed by new arrivals, hundreds decided their own injuries were trivial and left without attention.
It soon became apparent that no building could house the injured. A first-aid team was organized and moved to the City Auditorium. From there, they overflowed into the little park back of the City Hall. For a time, the lawns were the only beds available. Mer. chants stumbled and crawled through the wreckage of their stores to obtain blankets, towels, sheets, bandages and other supplies to donate to the improvised first-aid station.
Thanks to radio and to the striking telephone operators, who returned to their posts for emergency duty, word of Texas City's tragedy quickly and widely spread. Soldiers from Fort Crockett, Galveston, doctors and nurses from Goose Creek and Pasadena reached the scene in forty minutes. From Galveston, Alvin, Houston, every available ambulance converged on the little city, bearing doctors and nurses to join in the shuttle service. From Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Dallas and more distant points, airplanes bore more Army, Navy, and civilian doctors and nurses. Salvation Army and Red Cross personnel with canteens arrived before noon. Fire fighters, policemen, assistance of all kinds poured into the stricken city.
The private water system of the port facilities was ruined by the explosion. Water spouted from split fire-hydrants, broken pipes. In the city, water streamed from the twisted pipes in hundreds of houses. To conserve the city's water, the big valves on the mains were closed. For a short time, doctors were without water to sterilize their instruments, to wash their patients.
The public utility company rushed men in from other towns to assist the local crews working frantically to restore power lines, to cut out the leaking water lines. The Santa Fe Railroad stopped a freight train at Alvin, disconnected the engine, turned it around, loaded three tank cars with water, and brought the precious fluid to Texas City.
It devolved upon Mayor J. C. Trahan and Police Chief W. L. Ladish, to organize and coordinate the relief agencies and workers who came by plane, automobile, truck and ambulance. Dr. Clarence F. Quinn was appointed medical director and drew on his batt1e experience to organize an efficient first-aid checking station, earning the commendation of his colleagues and leaders in the medical profession. Trucks, huge buses and automobiles were pressed into service to evacuate the seriously wounded. Untold hundreds of less seriously injured were treated and released.
Of Texas City's 48 firemen, all who had answered the alarm, 27, including Fire Chief Baumgartner, were dead. All of its fire trucks were gone. A half mile of wharves, nearly all of the port's warehouses, and one of the largest industries were afire. Oil and gasoline tanks were blazing and threatening a hundred others. Spherical and "Mae West" tanks of natural gasoline, butane and other liquids that quickly become 'highly explosives gases, were endangered as were gasoline manufacturing units operating under high pressure. Assistant Fire Chief Fred Dowdy, in San Leon at the time of the explosion, sped back to Texas City and took command of those firemen left alive. Pitifully handicapped, facing the biggest fire in the history of Texas City, he rallied his forces to fight with such private fire-fighting equipment as he could find left at the various plants.
Screaming ambulances, automobiles and trucks raced to and fro, requiring traffic control. Road blocks had to be set up to divert the thousands of curious who converged upon the city.
Rescue teams of doctors, nurses and stretcher bearers, Army, Navy, Coast Guard, civilians, quickly organized. Donning gas masks from local plants and Fort Crockett, they braved the inferno, lifted the injured to safety, administered blood plasma, applied tourniquets and bandages amid the rubble and muck. Bodies of the dead were left where they fell, or laid aside out of the path of the flames. There was too little time for the living, less yet for the dead. True, there were one or two ghoulish undertakers who preferred the dead and the profit of a funeral to the unprofitable transportation of injured too dazed by shock even to murmur thanks. Nearly every mortician's ambulance shuttled back and forth with wounded, asking no cent of pay, as long as there was still an injured person in need of transportation. None gave more or risked more than the morticians and their ambulance drivers.
Some 2;000 were homeless. Around the City Hall, grieving, sweaty, bloodstained hundreds sought word of relatives, asked directions of every conceivable kind. A loudspeaker was set up to transmit general messages and orders. As tanks of highly explosive gases became endangered by fire, warnings were broadcast. A truck equipped with a loud-speaker raced through the city, heralding danger, sounding the all clear. Rumors of explosions to come were rife. Here and there a stricken family gathered up its dead, - from first-aid stations, from houses - and delivered up the bodies to the undertakers too busy to care for them.
Hampered by the lack of water in the dock area, there was little that could be done toward controlling the fires of the Monsanto plant and port facilities. Fire-fighting tugs tried to combat the flames from the waterfront, tried to rescue the High Flyer and the Wilson B. Keene. Unable to penetrate the wall of rolling black smoke, scorched by flames, the tugs were forced to withdraw from the Main Slip.
By 9:30 AM., the Stone Oil Company's still fire had been extinguished, but the tanks were burning fiercely.
At 4:00 P.M., the Southport-Republic tank fire was out.
Bulldozers were hurried to the wharf area, to assist in searching for and extricating the wounded, to build a new road around the heavy barge that blocked the entrance to the wharves, to open other roads choked with debris.
At times, the rescue workers were driven back by noxious fumes, minor explosions, roaring flames. Some would-be rescuers were overcome, and lay stricken like the ones they tried to save.
Alarms of real and fancied dangers plagued the workers, harried the faint of heart. Forming an ominous backdrop, flames and smoke boiled up from a mile-long fire skirting the south of town. Rumors of explosions to come were easy to believe.
By every means of conveyance, helpers and supplies continued to pour into the city. From bandages to complete X-ray machines, medical supplies came; blood plasma and embalming fluid, cots, blankets, clothing, everything that could possibly be needed came, continuously, bountifully, and soon. The Army sent cooks and field kitchens to work under the Red Cross, including 20 cooks from the 41st Armored Infantry Battalion and 12 from the 66th Tank Battalion, Camp Hood.
When at long last most of the injured bad been found and cared for, the rescue squads began the horrible task of removing the dead from the still smouldering ruins.
A temporary morgue was set up in the McGar Motor Company's damaged building. Undertakers, student morticians, volunteers both men and women - worked tirelessly. Each body was tagged with a number, and its pitiful belongings were bundled up and tagged correspondingly. Then began the awful task of washing away the blood, dirt and fuel oil, and later the task of embalming, rendered harder by lack of facilities as well the conditions of the bodies. It was soon discovered that there would not be room in the building for the embalmed bodies. The Texas City Independent School District offered the use of the High School Gymnasium. But a few nights before, this building had been gay with black and orange decorations for a school dance. Now, the windows blown in, the gay tissue bunting flapped in tatters. Quickly the glass was swept up, the room made ready for the blanketed bodies brought by Army truck, laid side by side in a silent row, each with its little bundle of belongings. Slowly the stiff row grew, extending along the wall. Another row was started, and yet another, until six still rows stretched across the wide room's length. About 6:00 P.M., Coast Guardsmen reported the High Flyer was on fire; the knocked-down boxcars in her hold were burning Fiercely. Lykes Brothers Steamship Company, owners of the High Flyer and the Wilson B. Keene, had flown in from New Orleans Vice President E. C. Jamison and Port Captain
J. V. Pharr, experienced in handling and loading ammonium nitrate. At once they had set about securing tugs with crews willing to attempt the rescue of the imperiled ships.
News that another ship was afireo caused panic. Between 7:30 and 8:00 P.M., the city was ordered evacuated. A sound truck rumbled through the streets, bawling the warning. Quickly ammonium nitrate became "ammunition," and the word spread, "An ammunition ship is going to blow up!"
Thousands fled, parked along the roads at safe distances and waited for more disaster. Heedless of the warnings, in the dock area, among the Monsanto ruins, rescue squads continued their work. Embalmers, morticians, police and firemen strove tirelessly at their colossal tasks. Two large searchlights from Fort Crockett facilitated work along the docks.
Persuaded there was little danger, tugs set out from Galveston at 10:20 P.M. Aboard were Lykes Brothers officials and experienced burner-men with acetylene cutting equipment. Arriving about 11:00 P.M., they braved the smoke and dying flames from Pier "A" Wharf. The cutters boarded the High Flyer, Cut her anchor chain. Lines from the tugs were put aboard. A fourth tug joined in the effort. For two hours they worked and pulled, trying to disengage the High Flyer from the Wilson B. Keene. They succeeded in moving her only about fifty feet.
At 1:00 A. M., the flames from the High Flyer began to spew from deep within the hold like balls of fire. So had the flames spewed from the Grand Camp just before she had exploded. As quickly as possible, the towboats cast off their lines and moved away. Up and down the waterfront went the cry, "Clear the area! There will be another explosion!"
Most of the rescue squads, doctors, nurses, stretcher-bearers, police and searchers for the dead beat a hasty retreat. A few had beard the cry too often.
With terrible violence, the High Flyer exploded at 1:10 A.M. Again there were two explosions, seconds apart. One man was killed and 24 more were injured. A large fragment of the ship crashed through a Salvation Army canteen truck. The attendant lost his leg. The High Flyer disintegrated. More than half of the Wilson B. Keene raised up out of the slip, turned end for end, traveled over Warehouse "B" and landed nearly 300 feet away on some box cars. Only a bow section of the Wilson B. Keene remained in the slip where two ships had been but a moment before. The demolition of Warehouse "A," of reinforced concrete, was completed, only a little jagged wall remaining upright. Like pointing fingers, row on row of bare, reinforcing rods stood. Except for some eighty feet of the west end, Warehouse "B" was also completely demolished.
Again, large and small missiles rained down in all directions. Many were incandescent. In the nearby Humble Pipe Line Company, four tanks of oil burst into flames. Two of Carbide & Carbon Chemicals Corporation's dockside aluminum tanks caught fire. A Republic Oil Refining Company tank, and two more of Stone Oil Company's tanks, burst to flame. Four thousand feet away, the turbine of the High Flyer, weighing about 8,000 pounds, crashed through the pumphouse roof at the Republic Oil Refining Company.
Those who had worked so patiently to replace their windows found them blown in again.
Rescue squads hurried back into the area. The Army's searchlights had been destroyed in the blast. The loss of these lights severely hampered the workers, but they were not without light. The flames of burning wharves, roaring tank fires, provided ghastly light.
All through the night the rescue squads and fire fighters toiled. Firemen and apparatus had come from many cities, including crew of expert oil fire fighters from the Shell Refining Company at Pasadena, near Houston. Before six o'clock Thursday morning, the fires in the Stone Oil Refinery's plant were out.
The fires in the Humble tank farm presented a more difficult problem. Four more of the Humble tanks and a Sid Richardson tank had caught fire from the four tanks fired by the High Flyer. Fire threatened to progress from tank to tank. And in this area, water was lacking.
At 7:00 A.M., even as thousands toiled wearily, fighting fires, searching for bodies, embalming the dead, other thousands started filing through the High School Gymnasiums searching for loved ones. Every few minutes a deep sigh, a moan, someone straightening convulsively, wavering a little, signaled an identification along the rows of charred and slaughtered bodies.
For too many, there would be no identification.
Nearly three-fourths of the citizens had left the city to be with the injured, to seek safety, to bury their dead in beloved vicinities. Several hundred were hospitalized in Galveston, Houston, and more distant cities. Many started to work valiantly, to bring order out of chaos, to restore a semblance of normalcy. Milk was delivered, papers were thrown, merchants and grocers doled out undamaged wares. On the sidewalk before a damaged bank, its officers cashed checks for those caught short of funds.
The ominous backdrop of boiling smoke and flame walled the whole south side of the city. There were huge tanks of propane, natural gasoline, naphtha, many inflammable products within the boiling smoke. The heat was terrific. At any moment there might be another explosion.
Fire-fighting equipment continued to arrive. A Houston Fire Department pumper got through to the water front at 11:30 A.M., dropped suction lines into the Bay and began fighting the Monsanto fires, but at 2:00 P.M., flames swept through a large supply of plastics.
A Humble gas oil tank flared up at 3:30 P.M., causing a new wave of fear and excitement. Flames shot upward over 2500 feet, seeming to hover over the city. Twenty minutes later, another Humble tank broke its foamite bond and sent up a huge column of flame. At 10:00 A.M., the fire fighters succeeded in putting out the fire in the Republic tank farm; almost at the same moment, another Humble tank burst into flames.
Friday there was a lessening of the tension that had gripped the city for nearly forty-eight hours. The wharf and warehouse fires were burning out. During the day, the principal Monsanto fires were extinguished. Roaring bulldozers could push farther to lift away wreckage, clear paths for masked search parties. The velvet curtain was gradually shrinking. There was no letup in the procession of trucks bearing bodies to the temporary morgue. For many, there was no abatement of heartache. Becoming more hopeless each hour, survivors of the missing pursued weary rounds of morgues and hospitals. Families of the identified dead found some solace in certainty of their loss, the ability to provide a fitting funeral for their dead.
Saturday, April 19, was much like the day before. A single Monsanto tank still burned. Trucks still delivered grisly loads of burned, charred bodies to the garage turned morgue. Silent houses awaited the return of missing tenants. A line of anxious-faced people waited outside the school gymnasium where identification experts worked over battered, unidentified bodies of the dead. Crews of building inspectors moved rapidly through the business and residential districts, checking structural safety. Already, trucks loaded with building material were rumbling through the streets, as rebuilding and repairs got under way.
A hungry, homeless terrier, seeking her master, a friend, someone she knew among weary people gathered around the City Hall, was suddenly forced to give up her search. In comparative safety at the base of World War II Memorial Shaft before the City Hall, she sought sanctuary. There she gave birth to a litter of five puppies. Forgotten was human weariness. Someone brought a box. Someone else provided a blanket. Another brought milk to the proud new mother. New-found friends carried the box indoors.
To dumb animals, it was a torturous ordeal. Cats, dogs, horses and cows found themselves suddenly abandoned in a new world of shock, of screaming sirens, thunderous noise. Hundreds were cared for by the SPCA, and hundreds dumbly waited for the return owners who never before had neglected them.
Saturday evening, more than a thousand mourners gathered in the High School Football stadium in homage to the missing, the dead for whom there could be no funeral. Smoke still drifted from the fires that had claimed so many lives. The gray pail clouded the faces of those gathered there. Protestant and Jew joined in the program for the dead, solace for the living.
Fires still burned Sunday. Texas City was still a city of horror and tragedy. Some few had slept, but hundreds walked the streets, ready to collapse from sheer exhaustion. Not until the last fire was out would they feel that danger was past.
The Humble tank fires were brought under control Monday, April 21, and on Tuesday, April 22, the last of the Monsanto fires burned out.
Throughout the wharf area, smoldering fires were dying, when suddenly an orange smoke began to boil up out of Warehouse '0" from which the Grand Camp had been loading. A tumbled mass of ammonium nitrate was on fire. Soon it was burning fiercely. No danger of explosion? Did anyone know how and when ammonium nitrate would exp1ode? No one had thought the High Flyer would explode!
Excitement, fear, terror, swept the city. Frantic calls poured into the mayor's office. Hundreds loaded their families into cars and fled the city. In two hours, the ammonium nitrate was consumed by fire. But there were other piles of the dread commodity in the warehouse. If it should catch fire, who could say if it would explode.
Not until the Coast Guard moved in large pumps and hosed all the remaining ammonium nitrate into the harbor did the excitement and fear abate.
Tuesday afternoon, the pitiful remains of the unidentified dead were moved to Camp Wallace, where a cold storage warehouse had been converted into a temporary morgue.
Wednesday morning, Mayor Trahan broadcast an appeal for all citizens to return to their homes. The repair and rebuilding of Texas City's damaged homes, business houses, and industries began in earnest, steadily gained momentum. Huge mounds of rubble, thousands of tons of steel, posed a gigantic task.
On May 1, the first ship to arrive after the disaster tied up at the Pan American wharf, which had sustained the least damage by fire.
Not until May 11 was the last body recovered and hope abandoned of finding any more of the missing.
For more than two months, identification experts toiled with human jigsaw puzzles. Many of the bodies were horribly mangled, disemboweled, headless, limbless, with little to provide clues to identity; one in a cloth covered stewpot, another folded in a pillowcase. Patiently, fragments of humans were pieced together; scars, tattoo marks, bits of clothing and possessions were carefully scrutinized in a hope to identify. Slender indeed were the clues that led to the identity of those whose fingerprints were not on file, or who had no fingers from which to take impressions.
A tattoo mark in the bend of an arm, saved from charring by being bent back at the elbow; a steel worker's badge imbedded in his chest; keys to automobiles and postoffice boxes, novelty auto license tags, gold teeth, filled teeth, missing teeth, Army dog tags, a home-made ring, a watch, scars, a crooked toe, a chewed fingernail, X-ray pictures of previously broken bones, an odd-sized shoe, hairs from a comb that matched hairs on the neck of a decapitated body, all these and many more means were employed to save bodies from burial in nameless graves. Closing a chapter in one of the nation's worst disasters, on a little plot purchased as a memorial cemetery, on June 22 sixty-three bodies, known only to God, were buried in the warm quiet of a Sabbath morning.
The exact death toll will never be known. There were 398 identified dead, and 178 were reported missing, the latter figure including the 63 unidentified bodies. This accounts for 576 persons. No record was kept of the number of injured, but the best estimate is about 4,000. Property damage was in excess of sixty-seven million dollars.
The many tons of broken glass have been swept up. By the hurrying feet of builders, the bloody trails have been obliterated. A greater city, greater port, with greater industries, is rising from the rubble.
- ELIZABETH LEE WHEATON