The Texas City Horror


April 16,1947, in Texas City, Texas, started out as a beautiful spring day. I was in my last year of high school, practicing for the senior play, making plans for the prom, and looking forward to going to college in the fall. I was having a lot of fun and felt good about the future.

My second class that morning was Physical Education. After dressing and leaving the gym, I started walking to the main building and immediately noticed a large cloud of orange smoke billowing up from the city’s dock area. A couple of my friends decided to play hooky and walk down to the docks to get a closer look. I almost accompanied them but went instead to my typing class.

About twelve minutes after the class started, I glimpsed a sudden flash outside the windows that seemed to be lightning. In a second or two a deafening boom shook the building, and about two or three seconds later I heard another ear-splitting blast. Without thinking I quickly dropped to the floor and tried to crawl under my typing desk. J. B. Meyers, who was next to me on the floor, shouted, “Open your mouth.” We all felt a piercing pain in our ears.

I didn’t know what had happened. I expected the ceiling to fall but in a few seconds realized the building wouldn’t collapse.

Fortunately my classroom faced away from the blast area, and none of my classmates had any major injuries. A few moments after the second explosion everyone got up from the floor and calmly exited the room. Students from other classes were also filing into the hall. Most of them had bloody faces, caused by flying glass. I noticed that the steel-frame windows had all of their glass blown out and the frames were bowed inward. Across the hall stood a row of lockers; slivers of glass had made scratches that revealed bare metal beneath the paint. The wall on the side of the stairway had buckled, and the doors to the outside had been torn off their hinges.

Oddly enough there was no panic. In eerie silence we all walked quickly outdoors. Out on the campus grounds the situation seemed worse, since almost everyone had been cut by glass. I later learned that no one in the high school was killed or even seriously hurt.

My teacher asked me to run over and see if her small child and baby-sitter were okay. Her apartment was near the high school, and it didn’t take me long to get there. Miraculously, neither baby nor sitter had received so much as a scratch. I ran back to school and told the teacher not to worry.

She asked me then to go to a nearby drugstore and get Mr. Coffee, the pharmacist, to come over to the high school with his first-aid kit. When I got there the entire floor was covered with broken patent-medicine bottles. I gingerly picked my way to a man in the back, told him that a lot of high school kids were injured, and asked if he would go over there to help. He said he would.

After I left the pharmacy, I learned from someone on the street that a French freighter named the Grand-camp , loaded with ammonium nitrate, had blown up. (It was said later that the explosion had the impact of two hundred and fifty World War II five-ton blockbuster bombs.) Word quickly went around that everyone should evacuate the town.

I knew I should get home as soon as possible. Walking north on Sixth, which was Texas City’s main street, I came upon a bunch of elementary school children near the high school. I recognized the son of J. C. Trahan, an insurance agent and the mayor of Texas City whom I worked for as an office boy and janitor. His son was crying and obviously quite confused, so I took him with me up Sixth Street to his father’s office.

Most stores, shops, and offices were damaged, their windows shattered. I walked past a jewelry store where the window displays of diamond rings, necklaces, and watches lay covered by broken glass; I could have reached out and taken them all. Farther up the street the front door of the First State Bank was wide open. I looked in and could see no one inside but noticed that the large steel door of the vault stood open. Nowhere did I see any looting; everybody was trying to leave. As I pushed on up Sixth Street I passed the entrance to a doctor’s office where trails of blood led to the door. I didn’t look inside.

Even though our house was about two miles from the docks, it had suffered some damage. My mother, who was home at the time, wasn’t hurt, but the south window of the back bedroom, frame and all, was completely blown out and lay on the bed. Glass slivers from the back door had gouged the side of the refrigerator, and the nails in the wall boards had all been pushed out about a quarter of an inch.

My dad worked as a boilermaker at the Monsanto Chemical Plant, only a stone’s throw from the ship that had exploded. The best my mother and I could hope for was that he was only injured. Filled with anxiety we got into our 1940 Pontiac and headed north out of town. We passed streams of people walking along the side of the road. It reminded me of the wartime newsreels of European refugees. We picked up an elderly couple. The man, probably in his seventies, said that he had pneumonia, but when they got the word to leave town, he struggled out of bed to find a safer place.

We didn’t know where to go. Twelve miles up state highway 146 we stopped in the little community of Kemah. Other refugees like us had decided to stop there too. Everyone was eager to give an account of the explosion and, of course, local people asked lots of questions.