5 August 2020

Massive Ammonium Nitrate Explosions: Beirut, Texas City, and West, Texas

Posted by John Freeland

The 1947 Texas City blast smoke seen from a rooftop 6 miles away in Galveston, TX. Source: University of North Texas

As Beirut struggles with the aftermath of an enormous explosion apparently caused by thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a dockside warehouse, it is notable that the world has seen such disasters before. What follows is a re-posting of an article I wrote and posted here in 2013 called “Deja Vu: Remembering the 1947 Texas City (Fertilizer) Disaster.” Why did the authorities decide to store such a massive quantity of explosive material? There is a market for ammonium nitrate as it is used as nitrogen fertilizer.

The 1947 Texas City Disaster is known as the worst U.S. industrial accident and the largest non-nuclear explosion in history. The disaster, like the recent West, Texas disaster (video), was preceded by a fire. Nearby firefighters and spectators were among many of those killed or injured.

The Texas City incident began with a fire that broke out on the French registered SS Grandcamp, which was loaded with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer bound for post-war Europe. The first explosion set off additional fires and explosions on other ships and at fuel storage facilities in and around the harbor. Video (caution: graphic images)

Nearly 1,000 buildings were destroyed, including the Monsanto Chemical Plant. An estimated 581 people were killed. Over 100 were never found and were presumed dead. Over 5,000 were wounded. Twenty-eight members of the Texas City Volunteer Fire Department were killed. The Monsanto plant manager sent this letter of condolences to the department.

The Texas City and West Texas explosions are a reminder of the enormous power of industrial nitrogen fertilizer, developed a century ago by German Chemist Fritz Haber (see previous post): the power to feed the world and the power to destroy. Perhaps author Daniel Charles puts it best:

…I began to trace the path of Haber’s life. At every turn, it led to places that were already familiar… And soon I realized that the legacy of this forgotten scientist was present in every day’s newspaper headlines and in every bite of food.”

The Texas City and West Texas tragedies should motivate Americans to re-evaluate the risk potential of these ammonium nitrate fertilizer operations. How often are they inspected by OSHA and fire marshals? What is the appropriate level of security?

Will nothing be done and, like the Texas City disaster, the West Texas disaster fade from memory?

Additional links:
Washington Post West Texas Photo Gallery

Photo source: University of North Texas