City on Fire

On April 16, 1947, the SS Grandcamp exploded in the harbor of Texas City, Texas. The ship was carrying ammonium nitrate as part of Marshall Plan relief for post-war Europe. Ammonium nitrate is both an effective fertilizer and a potent explosive, and the Grandcamp was carrying more than 2300 tons of the substance when a fire below turned into an explosion that produced a mushroom cloud reminiscent of an atomic blast. The Texas City waterfront was also home to chemical plants, and storage facilities for numerous petrochemical products. Many of these also caught fire and exploded in part. Several hundred people died; the exact total is unknown because of the completeness of the destruction at the explosion’s center.

City on Fire, by Bill Minutaglio, tells the story of the explosion with both verve and sympathy. Nor does he skimp on the structural factors that contributed the disaster: Texas City was (and most likely still is) run by and for the corporations who have built industry there; the habits of wartime and the fervor of the Cold War had left people deferential to the government. The companies, for example, fought hard to keep the city from annexing the land where their facilities were, which would have made them liable for local taxes. As it was, they did not even see fit to pay for the upkeep of a fireboat within the harbor. The port of nearby Houston had prohibited shipments of ammonium nitrate; Texas City had not.

Minutaglio follows about a dozen people from just before the disaster into the chaotic aftermath, with some follow-up about each one of them, or the survivors of those who perished. He keeps the book moving at a breakneck pace, writing in the present tense, and in a style somewhat reminiscent of period newsreels. This approach grated at first, and I was never fully happy with it, though I can see why he made the choice, as it is very effective for the dramatic events at the heart of the story.

A little more background would not have been remiss. The book is just over 275 pages, with a very generously spaced layout; surely he could have said something more about the chemical itself, about how the city came to be built, a little more scene setting. In choosing to tell the story through the dozen people he selects, Minutaglio seems to have chosen not to give more context.

It’s too bad, because he writes that he had been interested in the tale for nearly 20 years. I was left wondering where the rest was. Another unfortunate aspect is that the book was published in 2003. It was being written (most likely) in late 2001, early 2002, and the cloud of 9/11 hangs heavily over parts of the story. Faced with writing about a devastating explosion that resulted in numerous casualties, Minutaglio could not have ignored the similarities; but it would have been a better book if he had found a way.

There are European threads to the story: the ship was French, and the fertilizer itself was bound for Europe. Major ammonium nitrate disasters happened in Germany in 1921, and later in 1947 in France. It’s well told. I also suspect that another book, which Minutaglio graciously acknowledges, might have been more to my taste. Not that it’s likely to be found in a Tbilisi library…

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