Books: Wednesday July 23, 2003
City on Fire
By Bill Minutaglio, HarperCollins, 279 pgs., $24.95.
The Inferno

Reverberations from the explosion that destroyed Texas City still resonate.


I always loved Texas City, and I thought I’d be there forever. Good people ... hardworking people ... lived there.

— Curtis Trahan, 85, former mayor of Texas City, Texas

n the morning of April 16, 1947, a startled geologist at Regis College in Denver, Colorado, could not believe the readings on his seismograph. They were coming from the Texas Gulf Coast, 900 miles away. All he knew was that a blast “exceedingly powerful and unexpected” had hit Texas. “It could be a massive explosion,” he thought at the time. “Maybe an atomic bomb.”

What the geologist soon learned along with the rest of the country, just two years into peacetime recovery from World War II, was that a small Gulf Coast port town ringed by oil and gas refineries had, at that moment, been almost wiped from the face of the earth. Texas City would soon become a name as familiar to the nation in those post-war years as Dresden and Hiroshima.

Now Texas author Bill Minutaglio has produced an exhaustively researched and gracefully written book that recounts in chilling detail the disaster that changed more than just the lives of the 16,000 citizens of Texas City that day. City on Fire is a historical work that reads like a Greek tragedy, chronicling the ordinary lives of people approaching their day of reckoning and the bitterness that scarred so many survivors afterward, when they came to believe they’d been betrayed by the government to which they looked for protection.

Moored at the dock that morning was a French merchant ship, the Grandcamp, loaded with several thousand tons of ammonium nitrate, a new fertilizer that was going to feed the world — and that 50 years later would be the bomb ingredient of choice for Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh. At 9:12 a.m. the ship blew up with A-bomb-like intensity.

The huge explosion disintegrated the 1.4 million-ton Grandcamp, throwing “molten chunks of the ... ship ... up and across the city.” Within seconds, the docks, the downtown area, whole neighborhoods and major refineries, and the ships in its port, were engulfed in an inferno.

Longshoremen on the docks, sailors on the ship, and the town’s 26 volunteer firefighters and beloved fire chief (whose crew had responded to an alarm for a “possible chemical fire on board the Grandcamp”) were vaporized. Others were almost instantly charred, causing one survivor to remember thinking that he didn’t know the town had so many black people; mothers were decapitated as they held the hands of their children; people were burned to death in their homes. Many died from the concussion of the blast, some bled to death before help could arrive, and others drowned in the tidal wave that followed the explosion. Then, before the stunned survivors could begin to comprehend what had happened — many believed Armageddon had come — a second explosion from another ship loaded with the same deadly cargo followed, one that was even more powerful than the first. Texas City had been an unremarkable, if somewhat atypical, American small town. Now, over the span of a few hellish hours, it became a sister city to the recently fire-bombed cities of Europe and Asia, the only difference being the origins of their ghastly conflagrations.

No plane had dropped a bomb on Texas City — but a veritable bomb had tied up to the city’s dock. Deep in the hold of the Grandcamp, a fire had been smoldering for two days amid 2,600 tons of ammonium nitrate, sacked in 100-pound bags labeled only as fertilizer that had been loaded onto the ship days earlier along with tons of cotton and barrels of oil intended for European ports. The smoke of that two-day fuse could be seen by the townspeople, but their elected officials were told by the port’s managers not to worry. Many spectators, including hooky-playing children, poured down to the docks in a holiday spirit to watch the volunteer firefighters at work. Most of them died.

The ammonium nitrate compound had been created before World War II as a miracle fertilizer that could replenish the earth’s fast-depleting natural nitrogen cycles. It also became quickly clear, Minutaglio reminds us, that the chemical had a “profoundly dark side” — it was one of the world’s deadliest explosives. During the war, military plants around the country produced ammonium nitrate for bombs; afterward, the labels were merely changed to read “fertilizer.” That deadly power that helped win the war now had destroyed an American city in peacetime.

The disaster, he writes, “would have lingering effects for millions of us. ... It would set the legal standards for determining if our elected officials have been horribly negligent in their duties to protect and serve the ... people.” It would open the door for citizens to sue their government and would mark the first time the United States of America was named as a defendant in a lawsuit. Plus, the catastrophe and its aftermath would “redefine the ... way federal, state and local officials respond to the most massive emergencies — including 9/11.”

The cataclysmic event claimed more lives on American soil than any other man-made disaster in the 20th century. “No one will ever know how many ... died,” Minutaglio writes. “Some say six hundred, some say eight hundred ... [but] many simply vanished.”

Five thousand were injured; more than 2,000 were left homeless. Property damage was close to $4.5 billion in 1940s dollars. It is still “the greatest industrial tragedy in the history of the United States,” he writes.

Yet this uniquely American drama has been largely forgotten, the author laments — along with the extraordinary heroism of the small seaport town’s citizens as they “raced to an apocalypse.”

In the most compelling chapters of the book, he tells the story of those citizen-heroes — many whom, like the mayor, were also war heroes — in a “you-are-there” style that sets the tale in harrowing real time. Some of those he profiles will not survive.He has done an amazing job in tracking down the few survivors — the ex-mayor is now in his late 80s — and descendents of the victims to help him recreate the lives of the people of Texas City, before and after the tragedy.Minutaglio argues convincingly that the blood of those who died there was on the hands of their leaders, driven in large part by the politics of the Cold War. Plowing through tons of government documents and those of the court cases that grew out of the disaster, the author paints a dark picture of culpability reaching to the nation’s highest levels: President Harry Truman ignored ammonium nitrate’s dangers in order to tout it as the miracle fertilizer that would feed Europe, giving the United States a huge lead in the race to keep as many nations as possible from succumbing to Russian Communism. The chemical companies had profited from the mass production of the deadly compound for bombs and wanted to keep their factories humming. Warning people that the miracle fertilizer could also blow them to smithereens might have hampered such lofty political and financial ambitions.

When it finally dawned on the victims that the government for whom they had just fought a war had lied to them and put them in harm’s way, a class action lawsuit was reluctantly filed. A Houston federal judge surprised the country by ruling for the plaintiffs, setting aside the long-held precedent that “the King can do no wrong,” and therefore cannot be sued — but the Supreme Court ultimately ruled for the government. About the only thing the victims could count as a win was the fact that a precedent had been set that allows citizens to sue their government. Eighteen years after the fact, 1,394 survivors and surviving family members finally received “compensation” — government checks for about $12,000 each.

This is an important book for anyone who believes that their government’s lies and betrayals began with Vietnam — and also for those who know better. Despite an ending never in doubt, the picture Minutaglio paints of the exceptional heroism of Texas City people and the fight they undertook for justice makes it a true page-turner.

His book is a paean to courage in the face of an unimaginable catastrophic event — and a scathing condemnation of a government that has changed hardly a whit in the intervening years.

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