The Day Texas City Lost Its Fire Department

April 16, 1947, started out like any other spring day along the Gulf Coast in the town of Texas City, TX, population 16,000. Longshoremen busily loaded ships at the Port of Texas City and other townspeople went about their daily activities. The cargo ship...


When the Texas City disaster occurred, there were no fire department hazardous materials teams or hazmat training in the United States, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) were generally unheard of, no placarding and labeling system existed, and there was little government regulation of hazardous materials. Government today plays a more active role in regulation in preventing a Texas City-like disaster from happening again. Safe handling of ammonium nitrate is covered by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 490 Standard, Storage and Handling of Ammonium Nitrate. Additionally, state and local agencies may have regulations for hazardous materials, including ammonium nitrate.

Besides the regulations above, the NFPA and other government agencies have established regulations and guidelines on firefighting techniques, including potential explosives fires such as those involving ammonium nitrate. Employees who are expected to fight fires are required to undergo specialized training and be properly equipped as stated in Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 1910.156. Basically, the OSHA requirements for fighting this type of fire are to wear appropriate protective clothing to prevent contact with skin and eyes and SCBA to prevent contact with thermal decomposition products. For small fires, water spray, dry chemical, carbon dioxide or chemical foam can be effective. Water should be sprayed on fire-exposed containers to cool them and avoid explosion. Flooding amounts of water are recommended for fighting a fire involving ammonium nitrate. Cargo holds of burning ammonium nitrate should never be sealed or injected with steam. Firefighters should exercise extreme caution when fighting fires involving explosives or explosive materials. If there is any danger of explosion, firefighters should withdraw, evacuate the public and let the incident take its course.

My thanks to Texas City Fire Chief Gerald Grimm, Administrative Assistant Jane Tull and Beth Ryker Steiner, director of the Moore Memorial Public Library in Texas City, for their assistance in the preparation of this column.


TEXAS CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT PROFILE

Texas City, TX, is approximately 40 miles southeast of Houston and 11 miles northwest of Galveston on Galveston Bay just north of the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, the population is estimated at just over 44,000. Founded in 1911 with settlements dating to the early 1800s, Texas City's development has been influenced by its location in proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and the petrochemical industry. The Port of Texas City is the eighth-largest port in the United States and the third largest in Texas, currently exceeding 78 million net tons of cargo annually.

Texas City has had a fully paid fire department since 1956. Prior to that time, fire department staffing consisted totally of volunteers until just after the Texas City Disaster of 1947. Following the disaster, the department evolved into a combination department with some career and some volunteer firefighters before becoming all career. Gerald Grimm is the present fire chief and leads a force of 60 personnel operating from three fire stations. Texas City has two front-line engine companies; one quint with a 100-foot ladder, foam tank and 2,250-gpm pump; a heavy-duty rescue-hazmat truck; a rescue truck; and a boat. Texas City Fire Department provides a first-responder EMS program and has in service a water rescue team, high-angle rescue/confined-space response unit and hazardous materials response team. The Texas City Fire Department responds to an average of 4,600 calls for assistance each year.


ROBERT BURKE, a Firehouse contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland-Baltimore. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be contacted at robert.burke@att.net.