July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
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.
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.
When you are young you think that life will last forever, but in that high school classroom, I learned otherwise. For me, the hardest thing that came out of this tragedy was the death of my father. Strangely, even after the grisly discovery in the gym, the remnants of my hopes for finding him safe lingered on for several years in a recurring dream where we found him alive and well. Death of a loved one is always difficult, but at the age of seventeen, it simply felt unreal. Yet what once seemed impalpable has now become a part of life, and the events of that spring day will forever be engraved in my memory.