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The Texas City Disaster, 1947

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 40, Number 1, January 1999
pp. 189-190 | 10.1353/tech.1999.0041

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Technology and Culture 40.1 (1999) 189-190

Book Review

The Texas City Disaster, 1947 *

The Texas City Disaster, 1947. By Hugh W. Stephens. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997. Pp. xvi+141; illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $30.00 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

In 1995, Americans were barraged by televised images of the destruction of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City by a truckload of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer. But even after fifty years, the destruction caused by the explosion of two shiploads of this fertilizer at Texas City, Texas, is nearly incomprehensible. The vaporization of two Liberty ships, Grandcamp and High Flyer, on 16-17 April 1947 created the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. The final toll of 568 dead, 3,500 injured, $100 million in property damage, and $500 million in burned petroleum products exceeded similar figures for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The Texas City Disaster, 1947 grew out of a student's paper in a University of Houston emergency management course taught by the author, political scientist Hugh Stephens. In the book's brief 125 pages of text, this well-researched case history presents memorable lessons on America's penchant for unquestioning acceptance of new technologies. Stephens's context for the public attitude prevailing in 1947 is important for historians of technology: "Chemicals had made a vital contribution to Allied victory in the recent war and to the local economy as well. Scientists were confident about their knowledge, and the products of technology enjoyed virtually uncritical acceptance" (p. 13).

Located thirty-five miles southeast of Houston, Texas City in the 1940s was home to a styrene plant, four oil refineries, two aviation gasoline plants, a Seatrain terminal, a tin smelter, a grain elevator, a cotton compress, and warehouses for sulfur, zinc, and other bulk commodities. Shipments of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer began in late 1945, when the U.S. Army's Cornhusker Ordnance Plant in Nebraska converted from explosives manufacturing to fertilizer. Tight wartime controls on explosives by the military were relaxed at the end of World War II, so the U.S. Army and Coast Guard were unaware that potentially explosive fertilizer was being shipped from Texas City. Although regulations governing the handling and loading of such cargoes existed, they were not enforced. Therefore, a negligent stevedore, apparently smoking in the hold of the Grandcamp, accidentally touched off two enormous explosions and dozens of oil tank fires.

Using such primary sources as interviews with survivors and unpublished internal government memoranda and secondary sources as diverse as Southern Funeral Director and National Fire Protection Quarterly, Stephens pieces together a story replete with local heroes and a national outpouring of aid. The heroism and generosity that Stephens found did not, however, deter him from his objective: identifying those ultimately responsible for the disaster. Although federal agencies managed to avoid blame in 1947, Stephens uncovered sufficient evidence to spread blame among the private port owner, the two ship captains, the Coast Guard, the army, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and even the Red Cross. Stephens discovered the Coast Guard's failure to enforce its own dangerous cargo regulations in the transcript of Dalehite v. United States, which consolidated claims involving 8,485 survivors. During the trial, the Coast Guard was condemned for its lack of safety inspections, lack of control of known hazardous chemicals, and lack of preparedness for an oil-related disaster in a worldwide center of the petroleum-refining and chemical industry. Based on this evidence, a federal district judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the ruling was overturned on appeal, and the appellate court decision was upheld in 1953 in a 5-4 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. This split decision led an outraged Congress to approve, eight years after the disaster, a compensation bill for more than 800 widows, dependent children, and parents of those killed in Texas City.

In spite of the Supreme Court decision, Stephens makes a case that the Coast Guard may have been guilty of both culpable negligence and a cover-up. He then cites the Exxon Valdez oil spill as proof that the Coast Guard and other emergency response agencies are still susceptible to the same...


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