Last night, after the initial shock of the news that there had been a serious fire and an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, many Texans noticed that it was grimly evocative of another disaster in Texas—the Texas City disaster of 1947, which was, and remains, the deadliest industrial accident in any American city.
While it’s too soon to understand what happened in West, and whether it could have been prevented, it’s worth looking back to that earlier horror—because in the days and weeks to come we will start to understand what happened in West, and what happened in Texas City after the catastrophe may be illuminating.
The Texas City disaster, then, was triggered by a fire on board a ship that was carrying two thousand tons of ammonium nitrate. The fire triggered an explosion that left much of the town destroyed, nearly six hundred people dead, and some five thousand injured, many severely. In my book, which was excerpted in the magazine last month, I summarize what happened next:
People in Texas City felt that the government was to blame: no one had warned them of the explosive potential of ammonium nitrate, and after the catastrophe, the federal government was disinclined to pitch in. “Two weeks after the explosion, the small-town mayor flew to Washington to appear before the House Appropriations Committee, to beg them to approve a measure allocating a mere $15m to repair Texas City,” wrote Texan journalist Bill Minutaglio. “The money [would] never come.”
The next year, the widows of Texas City became the first Americans to sue the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1948—a new law that gave Americans, for the first time, the right to hold the federal government liable for certain damages. A district court ruled in their favor. In 1953, however, the Supreme Court turned them down, reasoning that people didn’t have the right to sue the government over things that had happened during the normal business of governing. Europe had been devastated by World War II. Rebuilding it was in the interests of the United States. Fertilizer would help. And so the ammonium nitrate shipments were a national security issue. Sorry, widows.
Luckily, Texas City had some help from the private sector. Within days of the explosion, the people got what they considered to be good news. Monsanto, one of the biggest employers in the city, announced that it would resume operations as soon as possible. It would build a new chemical plant even bigger than the old one, which had burned down. “In Texas City, if there is resistance to the idea of Monsanto rebuilding its massive chemical plant, not a word is uttered publicly,” explained Minutaglio. “There is, instead, widespread relief. It is saluted as industry’s instant belief in the future of Texas City. There will be jobs again. Someone, at least, thinks that the city is worth reclaiming.” Charities also helped with the rebuilding. Sam Maceo, a businessman and mobster from Galveston, launched the Texas City Relief Fund and arranged for Frank Sinatra to sing at a benefit concert.
The quotes from Minutaglio come from his book about the disaster, City on Fire, which is very good and which I would recommend if you’re looking for more context. The reason I decided to include this story in the book is because the public reaction Minutaglio describes struck me as something that would seem bizarre without more historical context about Texas. After all, the federal government wasn’t the proximate cause of the accident, and if I’m recalling this correctly, Texas City was a hub for ammonium nitrate in part because other ports, including the bigger Port of Houston, had deemed it too dangerous to handle. In other words, although the widows of Texas City, the ones who sued, wouldn’t have known how dangerous the fertilizer could be—the Supreme Court, in ruling against their claim, didn’t dispute that aspect of things—the leadership of Texas City, and of Texas, was presumably aware of the risk. And it was the private sector, the shipping company, that was directly responsible for the safe handling of the shipment.
And yet, given the historical context, the reaction among the victims is more comprehensible. To give a very brief summary, Texas had been annexed in 1845, after nine years as a republic—frustrating years, because the Texans who fought for independence from Mexico had done so under the presumption that they would, once independent, be annexed quickly. And the intervening years hadn’t done much to reassure Texans about whether they could count on Washington: there had been the Civil War, the Reconstruction, the anti-trust battles of the 1880s and 1890s, the Great Depression, the fights over who would control Texas’s newfound oil wealth, and so on.
The government of Texas, meanwhile, hadn’t done much to distinguish itself; the state constitution, which was written in 1876, effectively disempowered the state government to do much of anything. And in the interim, the need for public services—or what other states might recognize as public services—had often been filled by actors outside the government: businesses, churches, civil society.
The result was that Texas, circa 1947, was a state without many reference points for what an effective or trustworthy government would look like. The people of Texas City were effectively conditioned to respond to the disaster the way they did, particularly when it turned out that, once again, the federal government wasn’t going to step up, but the community was going to help, and the private sector was going to rebuild.
This is not, I should note, a strictly Texan attitude, although Texas, for the reasons summarized above, may display it more than most states. Several years ago (before I joined Texas Monthly), I covered Texas and the surrounding states for The Economist, and one of the events I covered was the Deepwater Horizon. What I heard in Louisiana, in May 2010, is also in the book:
People were, of course, devastated, upset, and afraid. But part of what they were afraid about was the impact on the oil industry. Many Americans felt the same way—in July of that year, a Bloomberg poll would find 73 percent of Americans opposed to the Obama administration’s May 28 moratorium on offshore drilling. But it was striking to see such support for the industry in the immediate wake of the disaster in the area most affected by the disaster. The people I met were almost protective. One roughneck told me he was shocked this had happened on a rig run by BP, because he knew, from his experience, that the company was a real stickler for safety and checklists. It was the mom-and-pop operations, he said, that you had to watch out for. A few towns over a woman working at a fast-food chicken restaurant was worried because her husband worked on the rigs; if the government put a moratorium on drilling, he would be out of luck.
This was within forty-eight hours of an accident that had killed eleven people in exactly the same line of work as her husband’s. It wasn’t as if she didn’t care, though; she obviously cared about her husband. It was that the offshore drilling boom had been good for the people of southern Louisiana—during the recession the Houma area had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country—and despite the accident, people thought the oil jobs were good jobs, which they were, by the regional and historical standard. The people in south Louisiana wanted BP to fix the mess, of course, and to pay for the cleanup, but as long as it seemed like BP was going to do that, they weren’t going to turn against the industry.
I doubt many people in Texas, or anywhere, would take things as far Joe Barton, a Republican Congressman from Texas’s Sixth District, who notoriously and inexplicably apologized to BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon. Still, a more sensible version of this line of thinking is widespread, and understanding that may help us understand how people in West, and in Texas, respond to what happened last night. Whatever we learn about the tragedy in West last night, and the news has indeed been heartbreaking and grim, Texas is going to have a fertilizer industry. A growing one, perhaps, given that cheap natural gas means the United States is likely to produce more fertilizer domestically rather than importing it. And, we can all hope, a safer one.