Texas City Harbor Explosion: Survivors remember explosion of French cargo ship on April 16, 1947 that killed hundreds

TEXAS CITY, Texas (KTRK) – Two survivors recall the horror of the massive explosion in Texas City Harbor on April 16, 1947 that killed hundreds.

Lynn Ray Ellison was six years old and Clarence Caldwell was 10 when explosions rocked the southeast Texas coastal community.

“Now when it exploded, it was like something you’d never seen or heard before,” Ellison said. “They tried to cool the ship down as it suffocated and smoked before exploding. Just imagine all these firefighters on a time bomb. Very few, if any, of them have ever been found.”

Texas City Museum’s Amanda Vance said the SS Grandcamp was in port. Workers loaded it with tons of ammonium nitrate destined for Europe to help restore World War II.

The French cargo ship already had fuel, oil and ammunition in its hold.

“The official cause of the disaster is that someone dropped a cigarette,” Vance said. “Down in the fuselage.”

The Texas City Volunteer Fire Department was called, but the fire continued to grow and the ship’s hold grew hotter. According to the Texas City Library, the ship’s captain attempted to extinguish the fire by forcing steam into the holds. Nonetheless, the vapors liquefied the ammonium nitrate to produce nitrous oxide, an extremely volatile substance.

At 9:12 a.m., the Grandcamp exploded, sending shrapnel high into the sky. The blast set off a 15-foot wave and a chain reaction of destruction. It destroyed a nearby chemical plant and killed people in its path, including 28 members of the Texas City Fire Department.

The official death toll is 581. Historians tend to suspect death.

The fire continued to burn until the following afternoon. On April 17, ammonium nitrate exploded on a second ship, the High Flyer. This explosion killed two more people and destroyed a nearby ship.

Chunks of fire rained down on the city. The disaster left thousands injured and destroyed hundreds of homes.

According to the Texas City Library, the high school’s gymnasium was converted into a temporary morgue and a local auto mechanic’s garage was used as an embalming room.

Every year on the anniversary, survivors gather at Memorial Park in Texas City to honor the lives lost.

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Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All rights reserved. Texas City Harbor Explosion: Survivors remember explosion of French cargo ship on April 16, 1947 that killed hundreds

Dais Johnston

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