(Sound of outdoor MEMORIAL CEREMONY: wind, birds, PA voice: "Henry Baumgartner, Fire Chief." Bell ring. "Joseph Milton Brady." Bell ring.)
This is a yearly event in Texas City. In this Galveston Bay port town of about 50,000, they will pause once again... and mark a red-letter moment in American history that occurred exactly 60 years ago today. It is nearly forgotten in the rest of the country, but here, on this day especially, its memory lives on. Locally, they call it The Blast. History knows it as the Texas City Disaster.
(Sound of 1947 PARAMOUNT NEWSREEL: Dramatic 40s newsreel music, then announcer "Texas City, a flaming torch! Towering pillars of smoke and fire envelope the Gulf coast town in a three-day horror of explosion, flame, and gas that ranks it as the greatest North American disaster in 30 years. Starting with the explosion of a nitrate-laden ship on the waterfront, the disaster quickly spreads to the huge $19 million Monsanto plant, who's synthetic rubber chemicals add to the holocaust, sending smoke billowing to 4,000 ft." Explosion FX and Newsreel Music.)
It was 1947, before television, so newsreels brought the disaster to movie-goers in lurid excess.
(Newsreel: "Blast after blast all but obliterates the city and turns the area into a sea of searing flame." Newsreel Music.)
It is still the biggest industrial disaster in American history. The death toll was nearly 600; over 3,500 wounded. Texas City's misery was the lead story across the nation for days. After the story faded, in short order came the first book about the disaster, then yearly newspaper articles, and then the occasional television shows, emphasizing death, devastation, and peril.
(TV show ANNOUNCER: "This is the story of Texas City: a story of Survival".)
The most recent telling of the disaster is the book City On Fire written by Bill Minutaglio.
"I just knew that in Texas City there would be amazing stories of ordinary people behaving in extraordinary ways, and I believe what I really tried to do is add a dimension that was truly lacking, and that is pure, pure human narrative."
Bill Minutaglio's book was almost finished when another infamous disaster occurred: 9/11. There were some striking parallels.
"Very, very literal! There were two planes blasted out of the sky over Texas City, suspicions of terrorism, FBI involvement, The presence of the military, a heroic priest; A profoundly heroic mayor, the involvement of the Oval Office, the greatest fire department tragedy in American history prior to 9/11, the almost obvious parallels of human courage, where people would just race into an inferno and do anything they could to help."
(Sound of dockside: sloshing waves, gulls, industrial hum.) "My name is Julio Luna Jr. and I was aboard the Grandcamp the day of the Texas City explosion."
The Grandcamp was the French freighter that exploded that day. Julio Luna had been loading it earlier. He and two friends were in his car just driving away when the ship blew.
LUNA: "...And it shoved that car of mine around in the ditch, and I backed it up again and took off trying to get away from that deal, and then we saw stuff falling, you know, that had blew up, and we managed to make it out of there. And Pee Wee Long and Wade says "You know what? Let's go back and help 'em". We turned around and went back. And we helped into the night. And we helped the following day."
"My name is Ken DeMaet. I had a personal stake in this explosion. I viewed it. I was there."
Ken DeMaet was working outside 3 miles away. Even so, the concussion nearly knocked him over. He headed immediately to the now-blazing port area.
"As I approached, the first thing I noticed was a big black man carrying a body out on his shoulder and laying it down in the clear, and then returning into that inferno, and then coming back again. And I stopped him, and I said "Are these your friends, or you relatives?" He said "No." He said "I don't even know them." He said "but they need my help and I'm helping them". And someone told me that he had been down into that inferno a dozen times. Every time I think of that it sends chills through me."
There is one more profound similarity between 9/11 and the Texas City Disaster.
DeMAET: "As soon as that first explosion occurred on the Grandcamp, people from all over the country began to call in to see what could be done."
LUNA: "It seemed to me like the whole United States came. I know that they didn't but its, but it just seemed like it. I never have seen so many people gathered to try to help."
MINUTAGLIO: "And what you found were people responding informally, yet moving collectively, if you will, wanting to help, hearing about it, and just responding."
DeMAET: "We had nurses and doctors jump in their cars from all the surrounding communities, from Houston, from as far away as Dallas, to come down and try to help. Not only nurses and doctors, but plain old John Does, people that didn't have any business being there but they came. They wanted to help and they came to get the injured out of the area, and later to help remove bodies, and later to clean up some of the damage."
LUNA: "And that's where I saw your service organizations. Like the Red Cross, you know, and Salvation Army."
MINUTAGLIO: "The Lions Club, the Rotary Club, the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, almost any large fraternal-type organization that you could think of either sent folks there, wrote checks, boarded up some boxes with food, clothing, supplies and just shipped it to Texas City."
DeMAET: "There were airplanes that flew in full of goods, materials, clothing, food, whatever was needed. And they came as far away as the east coast and the west coast. "
LUNA: "I remember bread trucks, you know, just coming in with a load of bread. If you wanted it there it is, just take it."
DeMAET: "Money was immediately needed, and it was forthcoming. I know there were funds taken up all over the country."
MINUTAGLIO: "Texas City spawned the first great post-disaster fundraisers. And the great stars of the day gather pretty quickly to conduct fundraisers and travel in caravans around the country. Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, and Jack Benny..."
(Archival Recording.) JACK BENNY: "Ladies and gentlemen, at this engagement we collected $28,222.50."
DeMAET: "And that continued for, yes, quite a few months. And I think the help kept coming as long as there was a need for it ,that continued, and it stopped after the need was gone."
(Sound of Ceremony. 'Taps' begins.)
Once again today, Texas City remembers. In 1997, for the 50th anniversary, this event was done up large. Over 10,000 people came out; they took three days, one of those devoted to thanksgiving. In September of 2001, when the nation again poured out its compassion, Texas City's survivors, like Julio Luna, recognized something familiar.
"That 9/11...reminded me of Texas City.....You know, we may sit here dormant all our lives, but something like that happens, you'd be surprised at how many people will show up to help you. .....That's the good part."
This is Wayne Bell, for Houston Public Radio News.