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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Air Date: Week of

Facts about... an ammonium nitrate induced shipping disaster.


CURWOOD: April 16th marks the 50th anniversary of one of the worst and most bizarre disasters in US history. It points out one of the risks of handling agricultural chemicals. In the oil port of Texas City, Texas, the freighter Grandcamp had just finished taking on 1,400 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer bound for France when deck hands noticed smoke coming from the hold. While spectators gathered along the pier, tug boats tried to pull the massive ship and its highly volatile cargo out to sea. It was too late. A few minutes past 9 in the morning, the freighter exploded. The ship's crew, the plant workers, and most of the onlookers were killed instantly. The blast set off a chain reaction of explosions and fires engulfing the area, which included a huge chemical plant and other ships loaded with flammables. At least 576 people died, and more than 3,000 were injured. Damages ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. What caused the blast? One theory is that the ship's crew, unfamiliar with the dangers of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate, had been smoking on deck. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.



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