At approximately 8 a.m. on the morning of April 16, 1947, smoke was observed coming from the cargo hold of the SS Grandcamp, a converted World War II Liberty ship assigned to the French Line. The ship was loaded with 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, small arms ammunition, sisal twine, and machinery bound for Europe as part of the post-World War II rebuilding effort.
The ship’s crew attempted conventional shipboard firefighting methods that included closing the hatches and injecting steam to suppress the fire and preserve the cargo. None of the methods were effective as ammonium nitrate is an oxidizer. As the fire increased in intensity, crew members and stevedores were forced off the ship. Alarms were sounded summoning the entire Texas City Volunteer Fire Department (28 men, four trucks) along with the Republic Oil Refining Company firefighting brigade. The crews were able to get hoselines in place, but the water was vaporizing as it contacted the hull of the Grandcamp.
At approximately 8:30 a.m. the hatch covers leading to the ammonium nitrate hold blew off, releasing a thick and ominous column of pressurized orange smoke into the morning sky. At 9 a.m. flames shot out of the hatch. At 9:12, the Grandcamp disintegrated in an enormous explosion that destroyed the port, much of the town and killed 568 people, including all but one member of the Texas City VFD, and injured approximately 3500 workers and residents. The disaster was so violent and extensive accurate numbers of casualties are imprecise due to many of the deceased being vaporized in the explosion, many of the dock workers being itinerant, and hospitals being overwhelmed by casualties. A second ship, the High Flyer, moored nearby and loaded with sulfur and ammonium nitrate, was heavily damaged and set afire in the first explosion. It exploded at 1:10 a.m. the next morning, compounding the damage.
The Texas City Disaster is the nation’s worst industrial disaster and one of the worst loss of firefighters in history. Captain William Johnson, along with 26 other firefighters were killed that day.