Fertilizer Explosion in Texas

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Ammonium nitrate is a key component of fertilizer production. Nitrogen is an essential component of the chlorophyll used by plants to make food. In addition, nitrogen is one of the components used in the production of proteins by the farm. Farmers also recognize the need for nitrogen in a plant that makes ammonium nitrate essential to the development of fertilizers. Ammonium nitrate is a cheap source of nitrogen and is soluble in several conditions. The interaction between ammonium nitrate and open flame, however, is extremely catastrophic. The exposure to ammonium nitrate to heat disintegrates into nitrous oxide and water vapor. Nitrous oxide supports combustion leading to an increase in the fire. In 1947, a poorly disposed of cigarette in a ship carrying fertilizer caused a massive destruction and death of many people after the ship exploded at the port of Texas City.


On April 16, 1947, the city of Texas experienced the worst industrial accident in the history of the country (Londrigan and Sandra 332). The Port of Texas City was a busy terminal where ships docked to sell and buy goods from the local industries. In this day, a ship by the name Grandcamp docked at the port awaiting loading of fertilizer into the ship. However, two days before, there was a fire in the ship which resulted from a disposed of a piece of cigarette. Apart from the bags of fertilizer, the ship carried tobacco supplies used in manufacturing cigarette and ammunition owned by the United States government. At 8 a.m., the crew noticed a yellow-orange smoke originating from the ship. In order to put off the fire without damaging the cargo, the crew decided to cut the supply of oxygen by using steam to extinguish the fire.

However, ammonium nitrate has oxygen elements in the compound and does not need any external supply to support combustion (Moore and Conrad 91). Therefore, the heat used the oxygen from the fertilizer leading to a massive explosion. The explosion was powerful to the extent of throwing more than five tons of steel into the air and at a very high speed. The fire from the blast ignited Monsanto Chemical Plant and destroyed houses, within a hundred mile radius. All the crew dies in the explosion together with bystanders who were watching the smoke. 567 people died from the industrial accident. Ammonium nitrate is highly combustible making it a preferred element by the terrorists in making bombs. A cargo ship by the name High Flyer caught fire and exploded killing more people and further destruction.


Due to the explosive nature of ammonium nitrate, many countries fighting the Second World War used the chemical to make bombs (Akhavan 143). However, after the war, countries in Europe imported the product to use as fertilizer. After the explosion, the city was not in a position to recover from the mistake fast. It was necessary for the survivors to start afresh. The city council lost all fire fighting machinery. Only one personnel survived the ordeal. Therefore, the industry suffered a great deal. In the explosion, the industry lost 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate aboard the first ship and 500 tons on the second ship. The financial loss for the industry that resulted from the accident was gigantic. The industry had to rely on donations to regain operations.

During the incident, the crew used paper sacks in carrying the ammonium nitrate. In the twentieth century, most manufacturers of paper bags used alum in making the paper water resistant. When packed together, ammonium nitrate would accumulate heat due to the inability of air to pass through the paper. The paper had the ability to allow the heat to smolder before the explosion. Further, the industry did not indicate cargo that was dangerous during packaging. Therefore, it was impossible for the crew to distinguish harmless cargo and ones that required proper care. The new laws after the explosion required marking of dangerous cargo for proper handling. Also, it became the responsibility of the company producing ammonium nitrate to employ safety officers to inspect the products to identify any potential risks.

One of the technical errors used by the crew is using steam to put off the fire. A chemical reaction between ammonium nitrate and steam results in the formation of nitrous oxide which supports combustion (Masterton and Cecile 154). The steam played a big part in the conversion of ammonium nitrate, and the steam multiplied the heat in the cargo. The crew refrained from using water due to the potential damage that it would have on the freight. However, water is not reactive to ammonium nitrate in an explosive manner. Therefore, the need to preserve the goods led to smoldering of the heat to dangerous measures. The results would have been better if the crew used water instead of steam. Water would put off the heat and end the smoldering process.

When the ship started producing colored smoke, many people crowded the port watching the smoke. Due to lack of safety officers at the scene, the crowd grew bigger with time. When the explosion occurred, the people nearby died from the impact of the heat. Security guards are professionals in analyzing a situation and calculating the potential threats. Their presence at the scene would sensitize the people and allow them to move away from the port. Secondly, moving the ship further to the sea would create a distance between the harbor and the people. The proximity to the port allowed the ship to explode and ignite the vessels and industries within the vicinity. Therefore, availability of safety officers is important parts of any organization especially those dealing with the dangerous material. Lastly, proper disposal of a cigarette or total elimination of smoking on board would be a good step in eliminating all sources of heat on board.


Fertilizer explosion in the year 1947 is a significant technical error that resulted in the destruction of property and loss of lives. The explosion occurred from fire from a cigarette on a ship with over two thousand tons of ammonium nitrate. The explosion affected over a thousand houses. The force of the blast shows the massive power that ammonium nitrate has when exposed to heat. However, if the crew used water to put off the fire, it would damage the goods but prevent the extensive destruction caused by the fire. Ammonium nitrate reacts with water in an endothermic process. However, the steam helped in the disintegration of ammonium nitrate to nitrous oxide which fueled the fire. Preventing a future occurrence requires the employment of safety officers that would inspect the goods frequently and identify any potential threat in advance, Secondly, it would be important to label hazardous material to allow safe handling and avoid exposure to unsafe conditions.

Works Cited

Akhavan, Jacqueline. The chemistry of explosives. Cambridge, UK: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2004. Print.

Londrigan, Marie, and Sandra Lewenson. Public health nursing : practicing population-based care. Sudbury, Mass: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2011. Print.

Masterton, William L., and Cecile N. Hurley. Chemistry : principles and reactions. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

Moore, John, and Conrad Stanitski. Chemistry: The Molecular Science. Cengage Learning, 2014. Print.

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