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Texas’ Forgotten Maritime Tragedy

by Stacey E. Burke on 05/09/2012

Last month, there were several commemorations to mark the deaths of the 11 workers who were killed when a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.  April also marked another deadly anniversary, which didn't receive as much media attention, but still holds plenty of lessons for Texas maritime lawyers.

On April 16, 1947, a French ship in the Texas City harbor went up in flames.  The ship was carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which ignited.  Millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed in the explosion, as well as the fires that raged for days after.  The chemicals on the ship released poisonous gas that quickly began spreading through the area, triggering widespread panic.

The explosion began with a small fire on the vessel, the Grandchamp.  The fire began spreading across the vessel, and the ship's captain decided that the hatches should be closed down in order to protect the cargo of ammonium nitrate. 

That decision proved deadly.  The heat of the fire quickly caused the ammonium nitrate to explode.  News reporters covering the tragedy compared the explosion to the flattening of cities in Europe during the Second World War.  The impact of the explosion was felt as far away as Galveston and Houston.

By the time the damage had been contained, and all the fires had been put out, more than 500 people had been killed.

Almost 58 years later, another deadly explosion rocked the BP refinery in Texas City.  This explosion killed 15 refinery workers, and injured dozens of workers at the facility.  Thanks to technological advancements and safer processes, the loss of life in this incident was much lower than in the 1947 tragedy. 

Although some lessons have been learned from these tragedies, maritime lawyers find that oil and gas drilling companies and refineries continue to push for productivity and profits ahead of safety, with tragic results.

Tags: Maritime Injuries

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