The Texas City Horror

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Late in the afternoon a family offered my mother and me a place to sleep. I cannot recall what happened to the elderly couple we picked up, but I think they also found accommodations with Kemah residents.

We spent the evening listening to the radio in the living room of the strangers who had taken us in. All the local stations gave considerable coverage to the disaster, indicating that most of Texas City was in ruins. In the south end of town, where radio reporters were stationed, nearly every building had been destroyed or badly damaged. The newscasts reported that a second ship, named the High Flyer , also loaded with ammonium nitrate, was still burning and likely to explode any minute. We listened until about midnight.

Around a quarter after one in the morning, shortly after we were all sound asleep, the windows of the house in Kemah rattled and we heard a distant boom. We turned on the radio, and as we suspected, the second ship had blown up.

Later I found out that only one person was killed and about thirty-five hurt when the High Flyer blew. The radio reporters implied that the rest of Texas City was ravaged. Next morning, after the kind strangers fed us breakfast, my mother and I started the drive back home. We knew that our house had survived the first blast, but based on what the radio said after the High Flyer went up, we had no idea what to expect.

As soon as we left Kemah we could see to the south a cloud of black smoke coming up from the direction of Texas City. The police had set up a roadblock. We had no trouble getting by though and fearfully drove into the north end of town.

It was a comfort to see houses still standing on Nineteenth Avenue. We found to our relief that our house remained the same. But there was no evidence that my dad had been home.

Some of our relatives helped by looking for him in the Galveston-Houston area hospitals. Meanwhile, my mother and I returned again and again to the makeshift morgue that had been set up in the high school gym where just prior to the first explosion I had played Volleyball. It was a frightful sight. Many bodies seemed unmarked, an indication that they were killed by concussion. Others were badly mangled or burned. By the second day many more of the corpses brought in were disfigured. Those brought in the day after were even worse. Some were so charred that they looked like large slabs of burned bacon. Even though quicklime had been thrown on them, the stench was so bad that one could hardly breathe without gagging.

During the third day rescue workers brought portions of bodies wrapped in army blankets. Each bundle had a number tag, and lying on bleacher seats were personal belongings clustered in small piles with corresponding numbers. There we found my dad’s keys and pocket watch. The number attached was 244. The bundle numbered 244 was about three feet long and two feet wide. We no longer had to go back to the gym.

Dad’s funeral service was not held at our church, which had suffered considerable damage, but at the mortuary. We took his body for burial to the Park Cemetery in Carthage, Missouri. My mother, her sister, and I drove there together. About two hundred miles from Texas City we stopped for gas, and when the station attendant learned that we came from Texas City, he told us he had heard the explosion. He said it sounded like distant thunder.

After a graveside service in Missouri we returned to Texas and tried to put our lives back together. I finished school and graduated the following month. The senior play was canceled. The prom was held not in the gym but on the stage of the auditorium of the city hall. As planned, I went to college the following September.

Miraculously, my friends who played hooky that fateful morning were not killed or even severely injured. Soon after they arrived at the docks they met some other high school boys who had a car. They decided to go skinny-dipping in a pond near the tin smelter; after all, it was a beautiful spring day. The driver of the car told the others there wasn’t enough room for everyone, but that whoever got to the car first could ride, while the rest would have to walk. So they were running away from the docks toward the car when the ship blew, which meant they had their backs to the blast. A friend later told me that the ground seemed to rise suddenly, forcing them to fall down. If I had been with them it is likely I would have been killed: at the time, I couldn’t swim and probably wouldn’t have left the docks to go to the pond.

Most of the four hundred people who were at the docks watching the fire were not as lucky as my friends. It was estimated that two hundred of them were killed, and the others were all severely injured. Loss of life in the Texas City disaster totaled 563. Most accounts place the number of wounded at around 3,000.

I learned that when there is a disaster, people can be very kind. They came from miles away to help. After the first blast the Army, under Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, as well as many civilians, went down into the dock area to rescue the wounded.