HOUSTON -- Ask around Texas City and you’ll eventually find someone of a certain age who’ll tell you an astonishing story.
“I was in the first grade back then,” recalled Mary Jane Walker, who might show you the tattered old dress she wore on a fateful day in 1947.
“I've seen things that most people will never see in their lifetimes,” her husband said, Dixie, remembering the aftermath of one of the most horrifying events in Texas history.
As news spread of the fertilizer plant blast in West, people who live in Texas City couldn’t help noting an eerie coincidence. Almost exactly 65 years earlier, a fire aboard a ship docked in Texas City triggered a chain reaction that detonated massive explosions aboard two vessels loaded with fertilizer.
The catastrophic blasts and fires leveled much of Texas City, killing at least 581 people and going down in history as the deadliest industrial accident in America.
The first fire erupted aboard the SS Grandcamp, a French-owned ship carrying a cargo of ammonium nitrate. As volunteer firefighters rushed to the scene, a 12-year-old boy named Joe Hoover saw the flames in the distance.
“I was wheeling out my bicycle to go to the fire,” Hoover remembered, but his mother forbade him from joining one of his friends headed for the port.
Firefighters tried to stop the spreading blaze, but at 9:12 a.m., a massive explosion instantly destroyed not only the docks, but also the nearby Monsanto Chemical plant, igniting hellish fires fueled by blazing oil and chemical storage tanks. The blast destroyed more than 1,000 buildings in Texas City.
“I was at the home plate taking batting practice when it blew up,” Dixie Walker remembered. “I was looking right down the third base line, right at it, when it blew.”
The Grandcamp explosion had killed dozens of firefighters and destroyed all of the city’s firefighting equipment, leaving Texas City helpless to battle the blazes triggered by the disaster.
Another ship carrying ammonium nitrate, the SS High Flyer, also caught fire. It was towed about 100 feet from the docks before it apparently got stuck on debris in the water. About 16 hours after the first blast, the High Flyer also exploded.
“This was so similar to what happened in West, because they were handling ammonia nitrate,” Hoover said. “There were a couple of ships there that were loaded with ammonia nitrate fertilizer.”
The Grandcamp explosion happened on April 16, 1947. The High Flyer exploded on April 17. The West explosion occurred exactly 65 years to the day later.
“It is striking, isn't it?” Hoover said. “But the community, after this happened, it really pulled together. It was just amazing. And I'm sure West has the same grit that we had."