CR3 #38: City on Fire by Bill Minutaglio

Nearly every book I’ve read about disasters has had a common theme: They were probably preventable. Most of the non-natural disasters were directly caused (or at the very least helped along) by greed, negligence, or a combination of the two. Cutting corners to save money or time has been the cause of an untold number of deaths in our nation’s history. And yet very rarely is anyone at the top ever punished–on occasion, a lower-level middle management type will end up as a scapegoat for whatever happened, but almost never does anyone who actually made the decisions wind up taking the heat. I thought I had almost reached a point where I could no longer be surprised.

Well, I was wrong. City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle is the worst of the worst. It is both the worst disaster I think I have read about thus far AND the worst example of the danger of corporate (and governmental) greed and neglect I have encountered. This book made me want to puke–first from the descriptions of the injuries suffered by the people of Texas City, Texas, and then from the way they were treated by the people directly responsible for the disaster…their own government.

In 1947, Texas City was a booming coastal town. It was almost entirely made of huge chemical plants and smelting factories, and the harbor was the door all those chemicals exited to be distributed around the world. The most dangerous of all the substances that flowed through the little Texas town was ammonium nitrate. During WWII, the US government discovered the dual benefit of this compound–on one hand, it is a very powerful fertilizer. On the other, it is a lethal explosive. After the war was over, the US government–in an attempt to win over the people of Europe by providing them with a means to grow food–boosted the production and shipping of ammonium nitrate. Unfortunately, as in nearly every case I’ve read about so far, safety was pushed aside in favor of speed and low cost. One day in April of 1947, a ship carrying a large load of ammonium nitrate caught fire while docked. Despite the best  efforts of the town’s fire crew (left without a fire boat because they couldn’t afford one–the huge companies that worked in Texas City had managed to avoid paying the city any taxes, so the town was nearly broke) the ship exploded, leveling half of the town. Another ship–also full of ammonium nitrate–also exploded, destroying the little that remained surrounding the harbor. Planes were knocked out of the sky, and the effects of the explosion were felt more than 150 miles away. The explosion was similar to the one that occurred in Halifax harbor in 1917, except in this case the survivors had to contend with the continued explosions and raging fires of the chemical plants–and water so full of toxins it couldn’t be used on the fires for fear of making the worse.

Minutaglio begins his book by introducing the reader to several main characters–Bill Roach, an idealistic priest, Curtis Trehan, the young mayor of Texas City, Elizabeth Dalehite, the wife of a local sea captain, Ceary Johnson, an African-American longshoreman, and Walter Sandberg, a chemical company executive, as well as high school students, homemakers, and dock workers. He sets up the scene in Texas City, where “The Company” controls everything, and the poor African American and Latino populations live in slums. Then, he takes the reader through the explosion, giving the perspectives of each person. He continues on to the aftermath of the disaster, and then spends a relatively short time on the legal aspect of what happened–survivors of the disaster were the first US citizens to bring a class-action lawsuit against the United States government.

The descriptions of the explosion and its effects were gory and horrific. I definitely found myself feeling a little faint in one or two places, simply due to the graphic descriptions. The author has done a great job researching and making the reader feel like he or she is right in the middle of the story, suffering along with the people we’ve gotten to know in the early chapters. He details their struggles, and goes on to finish with a short epilogue to let you know their fates.

This is an amazing book, showcasing another piece of barely acknowledged American history. I had never heard about this until I stumbled across an article on it in Wikipedia, and was shocked that the largest industrial disaster on American soil could have been almost entirely forgotten. It is simply mind-boggling, and I think that everyone should read Minutaglio’s book.


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