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Texas town recalls horror of nation's worst industrial accident

From Correspondent Charles Zewe

April 16, 1997
Web posted at: 1:46 p.m. EDT (1746 GMT)


TEXAS CITY, Texas (CNN) -- This Gulf of Mexico port was teeming with activity on a beautiful spring morning 50 years ago when a thundering boom and blinding flash jarred the city. A mushroom cloud rose high into the air, two airplanes were knocked out of the sky, and windows throughout the city of 15,000 shattered.

Newsreel coverage of the disaster
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It took more than a week to dowse all the fires and find the hundreds of bodies charred in the blast. It still ranks as the nation's worst industrial accident.

Ken DeMaet was standing with his friend, Red, at a nearby oil plant when the French freighter S.S. Grandcamp, packed with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, blew.

"When I saw that, I turned to Red and said, 'Red, the Russians have dropped the A-bomb. We're at war,'" DeMaet recalled.

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DeMaet was expected to join about 4,000 people who gathered at a high school football stadium Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the blast. At least 576 people were killed, including 227 employees and contractors of Monsanto Chemical. Another 3,500 residents were injured in the blast.

At 9:15 a.m. on April 16, 1947, a fire aboard the docked Grandcamp ignited its combustible cargo, which was bound for Europe to help farmers after World War II. Investigators believe a discarded cigarette triggered the blast.

Investigators believe 3 tons of ammonium nitrate were used in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Concrete slabs rained down


The initial explosion shattered windows up to 25 miles (40 km) away and sent chunks of steel flying throughout the Galveston Bay town about 40 miles southeast of Houston.

"Everything was flying in the air. I mean everything," said tax clerk Daisey Swan Buster.

The blast resulted in other explosions and fires throughout the huge complex of nearby petrochemical plants. A 15-foot tidal wave tossed a barge 200 feet away onto land. The Grandcamp's anchor was found two miles (3.6 km) away.

Lynn Ray Ellison was in his first-grade classroom when plaster rained down. "I was knocked from my seat," he said. "Debris was on me -- part of the roof, part of the ceiling. Glass was on me."


The remains of 63 people never were identified and were buried in a graveyard at the edge of town. Others were swallowed up without a trace.

Pam Wilson, known as the "Blast Baby," was born four hours before the explosion. She still has the pink blanket -- torn by flying shards of glass -- that covered her as she slept in a hospital nursery less than a mile from the docks.

For others, memories of the blast can be triggered in an instant. Buster said every time she hears a fire siren, she thinks of April 16, 1947.

"I always say, 'I hope it don't be another one.'"


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