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The worst industrial disaster in U.S. history — so far

On April 16th in 1947, Texas City, TX suffered the worst industrial accident in American history.  It’s well documented (even video, parts one and two) how the Grandcamp, loaded with ammonium nitrate, began burning and eventually exploded, killing more than 600 including the entire Texas City Fire Department and most of the bystanders and schoolchildren there watching.

After the Marines, my dad became a firefighter in Bowling Green, KY, and I grew up running around the firehouse.  You could do that back then, and we occasionally got pulled out of school to go watch big fires.  I saw a lot of old-school firefighting up close and personal, and that’s probably what drew me to HAZMAT work so early in my career. It’s also why my ending up in Texas City in November 2003 had such a weird deja vu feel to it.

I was an EPA Federal On-Scene Coordinator at that time, working in Region 6 (Dallas), when a barge carrying 235,000 gallons of 99% sulfuric acid capsized at the Sterling Chemical dock.  The Coast Guard had the lead since the event occurred off-shore, if only by a few feet.  All of us on the response side were well aware of the 1947 disaster, but it came back hard when the misbehaving barge began swelling and popping and venting hot, flammable hydrogen gas and sulfuric acid.  We suddenly had a very real threat of explosion, and our survey of surrounding facilities confirmed what we already knew — millions of gallons of highly hazardous substances ranging from anhydrous ammonia to acrylonitrile to styrene to benzene filled the estimated 800-meter blast radius.  Looking at a potential repeat of 1947, evacuations began immediately (no school kids or bystanders this time), and we considered options ranging from sinking the barge with explosives to rapid offloading into the Gulf.  In the end offloading was the decision, but it was not without controversy (think pH zero a mile away) or risk (who does the offload?).

To this day, I’m struck at being on the front line of a repeat scenario in the same spot where so much HAZMAT history played out 70 years ago.  Eventually the barge was emptied, there was no explosion, and everyone made it home.  We dodged a bullet that week, but all of us sure felt it whiz by.

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