Besides Beirut, Two Catastrophic Ammonium Nitrate Explosions From the Past
Experts have estimated that the recent blast along Beirut, Lebanon's waterfront had a strength of one fifth that of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Anyone who has seen the video of the Beirut explosion saw a mushroom cloud, characteristic of a nuclear explosion, envelop the immediate area then spread outward.
Lebanese authorities quickly determined that the blast was caused by ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that had been stored in a warehouse. Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound that is widely used as fertilizer in farming. Spread as small pellets, it quickly dissolves and releases nitrogen into the soil.
The Beirut explosion wasn't the first ammonium nitrate explosion that has had catastrophic consequences. Below, we take a look at two instances, one in Texas City, Texas in 1947, and one in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1995.
1947 Texas City, Texas - the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history
The explosion in this city located along Galveston Bay is considered the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history. It is also among the largest non-nuclear explosions ever to have occurred.
On the morning of April 16, 1947, a fire broke out onboard the French-registered ship SS Grandcamp, which was docked at the port. The ship was carrying 2,300 tons (2,086 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate intended for farmers in Europe.
Longshoremen loading the ship had reported that the bags of ammonium nitrate felt warm to the touch, indicating that an increase in the substance's chemical activity was taking place.
Smoke billowing from the Grandcamp's cargo hold had a deep red color, the same color as that seen in the Beirut explosion. The unusual color attracted spectators to the shoreline, and they gaped as the water surrounding the ship's hull began to boil.
The town's 28-man volunteer fire department was quickly on scene fighting the fire. Then, at 9:12 a.m., an enormous explosion occurred, killing all the crewmen on board the Grandcamp, and all but one member of the volunteer fire department. All four fire trucks were destroyed.
Over 1,000 buildings on the shore were immediately destroyed, including the Monsanto Chemical Company and the Union Carbide plants. The explosion caused other ships and oil-storage facilities at the port to be torn to pieces.
The explosion was so powerful that it created a 15-foot-high (4.5 m) mini tsunami that was detected 100 miles (160 km) away. The Grandcamp's anchor was blown clear across town, and two sightseeing planes flying over the city were knocked out of the sky.
Another ship, the SS High Flyer was docked about 600 feet (200 m) away from the Grandcamp, and she too was carrying ammonium nitrate. The initial explosion set on fire the ammonium nitrate stored on the High Flyer, and attempts made to move that ship out of the harbor were unsuccessful. 15 hours after the initial explosion, the High Flyer exploded, demolishing a nearby ship, the SS Wilson B. Keene, killing two more people and increasing the damage done to the port.
10 miles (16 km) away in the city of Galveston, Texas, over half of that city's windows were shattered, and because the oil-storage facilities in Texas City had exploded, Galveston was covered in an oily sheen.
In all, the Texas City disaster killed 581 people, with 405 having been identified, and 63 remaining identified. An additional 113 people were classified as "missing" because no identifiable body parts were ever found. It's possible that the actual number killed may have been much higher because Texas City attracted visiting seamen, migrant laborers and their families, and other travelers.
Besides the dead, over 5,000 people were injured, with 1,784 people being admitted to 21 area hospitals. Over 500 homes were destroyed and many more were damaged, leaving over 2,000 people homeless. Over 1,100 cars and trucks were damaged, and 362 railroad freight cars were completely obliterated.
In the days following the explosion, over 200 firefighters from cities as far away as Los Angeles arrived to help fight the fires that were burning up to a week after the initial explosion. Property damage was estimated at $100 million, which in today's dollars is equivalent to over $1.5 billion. Lawsuits aimed at holding the U.S. government responsible were unsuccessful, however, the U.S. Congress eventually provided some compensation to victims. 1,394 claims were awarded almost $17 million.
Today, Texas City is a bustling, deep water port that is home to 50.094 people as of 2019. It houses petroleum-refining and petrochemical-manufacturing facilities.
1995 Oklahoma City bombing - the second deadliest U.S. terror attack
On April 19, 1995, just before 9:00 a.m., a former member of the U.S. military named Timothy McVeigh drove a rental truck up to the drop-off zone of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Inside the truck was 4,800 pounds (2,200 kg) of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, along with nitromethane and a mixture of diesel fuel which created an ammonium nitrate, or fertilizer, bomb. The drop-off zone happened to be just beneath a day-care center operated for the building's employees and outside employees as well. On that day, the day-care center was filled with both infants and children.
At 9:02 a.m., a blast tore through the rental truck and the federal building, blasting off a third of the front of the building, and killing 168 people including 19 children. Where the truck had once stood there was a 30-foot-wide (9.1 m), 8-foot-deep (2.4 m) crater.
Seismometers located at Norman, Oklahoma, 16.1 miles (25.9 km) away recorded the blast as measuring 3.3 on the Richter Scale. Within a 4-block radius, 324 other buildings were either destroyed or damaged, and glass was shattered in 258 nearby buildings. 86 cars parked near the building were destroyed.
But, it wasn't until rescuers began combing the building that the true toll of the explosion was known. In a photo that was seen around the world, firefighter Chris Fields was seen carrying 1-year-old Baylee Almon out of the building. She later died at the hospital. The photo, which was taken by a bank employee, won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.
Children who weren't killed or injured were affected in other ways. Many children lost one or both of their parents, with 10 children becoming completely orphaned by the blast. Three days after the bombing, President Clinton addressed the nation, saying:
"I don't want our children to believe something terrible about life and the future and grownups in general because of this awful thing ... most adults are good people who want to protect our children in their childhood and we are going to get through this."
90 minutes after the explosion, Timothy McVeigh was stopped by an Oklahoma Highway Patrolman for driving without a license plate. Illegal weapons were found in his car and he was arrested. Surveillance camera video connected McVeigh with the explosion, and three accomplices of his were identified: Terry Nichols, and Michael and Lori Fortier.
McVeigh told authorities that the bombing was in retaliation for the Ruby Ridge incident in 1992, and the Waco siege in 1993, and that he timed the Oklahoma City bombing to coincide with the second anniversary of the Waco siege.
The Oklahoma City explosion was estimated to have caused at least $652 million in damage. On May 23, 1995, workers brought down the remains of the Murrah Federal Building. On June 11, 2001, Timothy McVeigh was executed for his crime, while Terry Nichols received a life sentence. Michael Fortier received a 12-year sentence, and his wife received immunity in exchange for her testimony against her co-conspirators.
As the cleanup in Beirut begins, we can only hope that the lessons learned from that city, Texas City, and Oklahoma City will resonate, and that the awesome power contained within ammonium nitrate will be safely contained in the future.