TEXAS CITY, Texas – Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut, Lebanon released incredible amounts of energy and resulted in unthinkable damage. A large amount of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound often used in fertilizer, is now believed to be the culprit. More than 2700 tons were being stored at a warehouse that caught fire. The blast will likely rank near the top of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. However, it is not the first time ammonium nitrate has resulted in widespread death and destruction. Events such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion were caused by ammonium nitrate. But perhaps the event most comparable to Beirut happened in Texas City.
On April 16, 1947, in Galveston Bay, a French vessel called the SS Grandcamp was carrying nearly 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. The boat was docked in Texas City. A nearby ship, the High Flyer, was carrying an additional 800 tons of ammonium nitrate, along with sulfur. The cargo was to be transported back to farmers in Europe. On the morning of April 16th, smoke began to billow from the Grandcamp and hours were spent trying to control a fire on the ship. The smoke took on an unusual tint, drawing in spectators who came to see the spectacle. Heat and pressure finally caused the ammonium nitrate to reach its detonation threshold at around 9 a.m. The resulting explosion was immense, sending pieces of steel high into the sky. Nearby buildings on land were leveled, while the two-ton anchor from the Grandcamp was hurled 1.6 miles. Chemical plants located in Texas City also caught fire and caused smaller explosions. Two sightseeing airplanes, which were flying nearby, were blown out of the sky, with the shock wave extending out 100 miles. The High Flyer would later also explode, after its load of ammonium nitrate detonated.
All of those aboard the Grandcamp were killed. Of the 28-man Texas City volunteer fire department, only one survived. In the end, hundreds of casualties were reported, with more than 5,000 injured. Hundreds of homes were also destroyed.