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On April 16, 1947 a French ship exploded in the harbor of Texas City, Texas. The 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate it had been carrying caught fire and blew up with enough force to kill 581 people. Thousands of more were injured and $100 million dollars in property was damaged.

How did it happen?

The French ship ‘SS Grandcamp’ was tied up in the Texas City port. The morning of April 16, a fire broke out in the ship’s engine room, and eventually the flames found their way to where its ammonium nitrate cargo was stored. Sailors attempted to control the fire, but they were unsuccessful. The captain decided to use steam to put out the flames, and the entire cargo hold was filled with it. The extra heat of the steam was the final straw, as it caused the ammonium nitrate to break down into nitrous oxide and generate enough total heat to cause the explosion. Temperatures inside the cargo hold reached 454 C just prior to the blast.

Aftermath

The force of the explosion was incredible. Windows were shattered as far as 40 miles away, and fires were ignited all over Texas City, with refineries and chemical plants being immediately and completely destroyed. A 4.5 meter tall wave of water engulfed 160 kilometers of coastline and eliminated 1000 buildings. Pieces of the ship were launched all over the area, with anchors and other large chunks of steel coming to rest miles away from the harbor. 581 people were killed immediately, but this figure does not include the hundreds of undocumented visitors and workers near the blast at the time. Other ships in the harbor burned out of control, exploding to kill more victims hours after the initial incident had taken place. 5,000 residents were injured.

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