Texas City Port Explosion: Survivors remember French freighter explosion that killed hundreds on April 16, 1947

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

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

“Now when it blew, it was like something you’ve never seen or heard before,” Ellison said. “They were trying to cool the ship as it suffocated and smoked before it exploded. Imagine all those firefighters on top of a ticking time bomb. Very few, if any, of them have ever been found.”

Amanda Vance of the Texas City Museum said the SS Grandcamp was in port. Workers loaded it with tons of ammonium nitrate bound for Europe to aid in World War II recovery.

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

“The official cause of the disaster is that someone had dropped a cigarette,” Vance said. “In the hull.

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

At 9:12 a.m. the Grandcamp exploded and sent shrapnel high into the sky. The explosion 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 more likely suspect they perished.

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

Pieces of flaming debris rained down on the city. The disaster injured thousands and destroyed hundreds of homes.

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

Survivors gather each year on the anniversary at Memorial Park in Texas City to honor the lives lost.

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