The attack begıns in the Houston Ship Channel, in the cargo hold of the Belize-flagged, Singapore-owned container ship Ocean Princess. The vessel is eight hundred feet long. It is stacked from stem to stern with forty-foot-long steel boxes and looks oddly top-heavy. On international manifests its cargo is listed as “toys and electrical components.” But that’s not all it is carrying. Inside one of the containers, each of which can hold thirty tons of cargo, is a stockpile of terrorist-planted explosives that makes Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bomb look like a firecracker.
As the ship steams north and west toward the heart of Houston, there are no signs that anything is wrong. The U.S. Coast Guard boards the ship and performs a routine inspection, interviewing the captain and crew but opening no containers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which uses an x-ray machine to inspect some 10 to 12 percent of containers entering the port, sees nothing suspicious in this shipment and elects not to screen it.
But as the ship approaches the giant Shell Oil refinery in Deer Park, the Coast Guard’s port commander receives a panicked call from the Department of Justice’s Counterterrorism Section in Washington. It’s bad news: The Ocean Princess is probably carrying a bomb. The Coast Guard scrambles into action, but it is already too late. Before the cutters can reach the vessel, an immense blast rocks the channel and surrounding areas.
As Homeland Security officials will later discover, the bomb consists mostly of Soviet-era anti-ship mines, originally loaded onto the Ocean Princess in Trieste, Italy, by an obscure but well-organized group of Algerian and Moroccan terrorists. The explosives are triggered by a device known as a GPS detonator, which sets them off as soon as a certain longitude-latitude coordinate is reached. In this case, the coordinates were for Shell’s refinery. Today the terrorists are lucky: The bomb goes off just as the container ship is also passing a seven-hundred-foot liquefied petroleum gas ( LPG) tanker. The blast rips into the side of the tanker, causing yet another large explosion, which in turn both ignites gasoline and crude-oil storage tanks at Shell and causes the tanks’ walls to rupture, sending a river of fire out into the refinery and reaching the far more dangerous pressurized pentane storage tanks. A little more than 11 million gallons of pentane are released, some of which burns and some of which evaporates and forms a vapor cloud, which then explodes with enormous force, leveling buildings and structures in the immediate vicinity. By the time another compartment on the LPG tanker is breached, sending a new fireball into the sky, more than two hundred people are dead. The container ship is half-submerged, still burning and resting on the bottom of the fifty-foot-deep channel. But all this, as Houstonians and the rest of the world will soon learn, is merely prelude. What happens next is scarcely imaginable.
CHARLES DICKENS once described Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as “hell with the lid off.” His reference was to that city’s vast landscape of smoke-belching steel mills, but the metaphor also works for something much closer to home: the grotesquely magnificent stretch of refineries, petrochemical and other plants, mills, docks, silos, wharves, and warehouses that rise along the banks of the malodorous waterway known as the Houston Ship Channel. Over its full fifty-mile track—from near downtown Houston to Bolivar Roads, on the Gulf of Mexico—the channel houses three hundred plants and is one of the largest concentrations of heavy industry on earth, producing nearly half of the nation’s supply of gasoline and half of its petrochemicals. It comprises the largest refinery in the world (Exxon Mobil, in Baytown) and the sixth-largest seaport. Viewed from the tollway bridge on Houston’s east side, the upper channel can seem both frightening and, in its own dark, industrial Gothic way, weirdly beautiful. On certain days the whole brutish apparatus seems to hiss into action, spewing fire and emitting long, gorgeously looping plumes of cottony white steam that coil around its steel tanks and spires and rise hundreds of feet into the sky. Dickens, who chronicled England’s industrial revolution, would have felt right at home.
But as the above hypothetical attack suggests, the channel is more than just a spectacular industrial engine. It is also a prime terrorist target. That’s because it is both ground zero for the nation’s petrochemical industry and home to unfathomably large quantities of the deadliest, most combustible, disease-causing, lung-exploding, chromosome-annihilating, and metal-dissolving substances known to man. The sheer toxicity of it all, in fact, is one of the main reasons the channel zone evolved as it did: Part of the idea was to confine all of these poison-laden refineries and chemical plants and ships filled with anhydrous ammonia to their own noxious neighborhoods, generally away from homes and schools and offices. You don’t want to put storage tanks next to nursery schools if they have the potential for igniting and leveling every building within a half-mile radius. Chemical plants can kill people at long range, but it is still a bad idea to put them next to residential subdivisions. Back in the twenties and thirties, when industries began to locate along the channel en masse, this must have seemed like a sound idea. In the year 2004, when terrorist attacks are daily events and people fly planes into the World Trade Center to make a political statement, this sort of unarmored industrial concentration is like having a giant target painted on us with a sign, in Arabic, that reads “Attack here.”
As most Houston residents can tell you, the Ship Channel has long been considered one of the top strategic targets in the United States. Russian missiles were (and perhaps are) aimed at it. A single well-placed strike would cripple a significant portion of our national economy. Along with the rest of the city, the channel was put on a Code Orange terrorist alert during Super Bowl week in January. Two months later the FBI announced another alert—again Code Orange—specifically for