Postcards tell of disaster in Texas City

Images from disasters and other major events are sent around the world so quickly today that it’s easy to forget the limitations of news coverage before the information highway was built. In 1947, for example, Texas City, Texas, was virtually destroyed by the worst industrial accident in American history. Scenes of this horrendous catastrophe could be seen in grainy newspaper photos, in movie theater newsreels, in magazine coverage and on postcards.

Yes, postcards. Photographers the world over have been drawn to disaster since the camera became a portable tool, and in the first half of the 20th century, they sometimes marketed their work on postcards. The impact of this really hit home when Dorothy Dedlow of Florida recently donated seven real photos of the Texas City disaster to my semi-annual charity sale for hunger relief.

 The Texas port city was devastated by fertilizer, foreshadowing the deliberate use of ammonium nitrate as an ingredient in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. On April 16, 1947, the SS Grandcamp, a former Liberty ship from WWII, was assigned to help in the rebuilding of Europe under French registry. Paper bags of the chemical fertilizer were packed in the hold, a common cargo at the time, along with small arms, ammunition, machinery and sisal. Longshoremen later reported that the bags seemed warm to the touch.

Shortly after eight in the morning, a fire was spotted in the engine room of the Grandcamp. It quickly spread to the hold, and steam was piped in as a means of saving cargo. Instead the temperature soared to the explosive temperature of 850 degrees Fahrenheit. The ship detonated in front of a crowd that had lined the shoreline to watch the firefighting effort.

The results were unimaginable. A mushroom cloud soared 2,000 feet and knocked two small planes from the air. The blast was heard 150 miles away and triggered the explosion of a second ship, the High Flyer, also loaded with ammonium nitrate. A tidal wave surged over 100 miles of shoreline, leveling 1,000 buildings on land and sinking virtually every ship in the harbor. More than 6,300 tons of steel from the ship blasted into the air at supersonic speed. Oil and chemical storage tanks burned, several plants including Monsanto and Union Carbide were destroyed, and more than 500 homes were lost.

The human toll included all of Texas City’s volunteer firefighters and an official death toll of 581, although the count might have been considerably higher. Thousands suffered injuries. (The health risks of inhaling the fumes weren’t considered.) Fires were still burning a week later in spite of the efforts of 200 firefighters who came from as far away as Los Angeles.

The disaster also resulted in the first class action lawsuit against the United States government. The Supreme Court later overturned a lower court’s decision for the plaintiffs, but congress provided some compensation.

Many disaster postcards were printed and sold locally, but the Texas City catastrophe must have held nationwide interest. The leading maker of real photo postcards in the United States, the L.L. Cook Co. of Milwaukee, printed the photographs. Each card is numbered. In this group they range from M527 to M697, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that more than 150 different cards were made.

The cards not shown here include a large parking lot with the cars covered in ash, a high spray of water over a dock, the skeletal remains of a buildings with many workers below it, and a scene of workers searching a broad area for bodies.

Both the scale of the damage and the legal ramifications give these cards great historical value. CNN is faster in news coverage, but postcards of devastation that happened more than 60 years ago still evoke sympathy for the people of Texas City.