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Texas plant explosion: A deadly 1947 explosion in Texas City was also caused by ammonium nitrate

Bill Minutaglio, author of 'City on Fire,' discusses the 1947 explosion in Texas City of a ship full of ammonium nitrate that killed hundreds and left thousands wounded.

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That said, these incidents both occurred in small towns that were just horrifically overwhelmed, towns filled with hard-working folks, people who work with their hands in farms or factories or plants. Similar questions are emerging: Could this have been prevented?
 
Q: How is the Texas City disaster memorialized, and how has it affected that community to this day?
 
A: It is recognized in various ways – with a memorial area, with anniversary commemorations. The city is well aware of its history. The main library in Texas City is a wonderful repository of history, oral histories, photographs.

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It's hard to say how the event affects the community now. I think, in general, people in Texas City are mindful of the giant, sprawling industrial complex that rings the city.

It is enormous, and the people in the city are very proud of the fact that large portions of America would not function as they do without the goods and services from Texas City. America would be radically different, probably malfunctioning according to some people, without the energy and petrochemical nexus of Texas City.
 
Q: Why do you think the Texas City disaster is largely forgotten? Does it just not fit into a wider historical narrative?
 
A: People remember Texas City when they want to, through the prism of the media that revives the story when events like the one in West occur. There have been other disasters in Texas City, by the way, including one in 2005 when 15 people died and 170 or so were injured.
 
Q: What lessons can we learn from Texas City that will help the community in West?

A: Greater attention has to be paid to safeguard communities, to provide oversight, to commit to government inspections, to err on the side of caution.

In Texas City, in 1947, people said they were simply not made aware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate. They wished they had been told.
 
Q: What is the ultimate legacy of Texas City?
 
A: Texas City is taught in emergency response schools. People who work at FEMA and other response agencies know about Texas City and study it. If they don't, they should.

Texas City offered manifest lessons on how to control chaos and how to manage emergencies. That's an important and enduring legacy, and many people in the United States are completely unaware of it.

Texas City also led to the first massive class-action filed against the federal government. It opened the door, in its way, for ordinary people to challenge the government on a legal basis.

Whether by accident or design, there have been far too many unfolding tragedies involving loss of life and large numbers of injuries. I hope that the lessons of West, Texas City, Newtown, and Boston will make us even more aware and make us think more about how to perhaps anticipate problems while still encouraging our children to meet the world with open arms.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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