On a cool April morning in 1947, the S.S. Grandcamp sat docked in Texas City, waiting as it was loaded with sacks of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
A few years earlier, this humble cargo ship had been part of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. After World War II, the U.S. government gave it to France as a gift to help rebuild a shattered Europe, where it was renamed the Grandcamp and converted into a slightly less grand cargo ship, which now found itself waiting fatefully in a Texas port.
The Grandcamp‘s freight that day, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, is usually a relatively safe cargo, but it can quickly become unstable and explosive under certain conditions, which is also why it is used as an industrial and military explosive. Arriving by train in Texas City, this cargo may have become too warm to ship safely, but at the time, few chemical safety regulations existed, and the fertilizer was packed onto the Grandcamp along with its previous shipments of twine, peanuts, tobacco, and 16 cases of small arms ammunition.
Around 8:00 a.m. on April 16, after about 2,300 tons of fertilizer were loaded, workers noticed smoke and vapors coming from the ship. No one knew what caused the fire in the hold. The captain ordered the hatches battened and tarpaulins thrown over them, calling for steam to be piped into the ship—a firefighting technique he hoped would put out the fire but preserve the cargo. However, this would only make things worse.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m., the ship exploded with tremendous force.