Beirut tragedy eerily echoes 1947 Texas industrial explosion also caused by volatile chemical ammonium nitrate

A trip through history indicates humanity's tussle with the highly explosive chemical and industrial inability to learn from similar tragedies over the last 7 decades


                            Beirut tragedy eerily echoes 1947 Texas industrial explosion also caused by volatile chemical ammonium nitrate
Beirut, Lebanon (Getty Images)

A Beirut that had already been economically crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic witnessed further tragedy on the evening of August 4 when an extremely powerful explosion at a warehouse in the Port of Beirut leveled almost half the city in an instant.

Several viral videos on social media, some of which were likely being livestreamed by those who would not survive the explosion, showed a massive cloud of white smoke billowing out of the warehouse and smaller fires burning away in the periphery.

A few seconds into the videos, a second, even bigger explosion, sent a shockwave rippling through the city that incinerated buildings nearby, caused extensive damage in a several-mile radius, was heard from the neighboring country, and was registered by the United States Geological Survey as a 3.3 local magnitude earthquake. 

Official reports confirmed the worst, with early estimates suggesting that at least 157 had died and more than 5,000 had been injured in the explosion. Those numbers are expected to rise further in the coming days, with search and rescue personnel still on the lookout for hundreds who remain missing. Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud shared that at least 300,000 had been left homeless by the explosions, reported Al Jazeera, with the Lebanese government declaring a two-week state of emergency in the country.

(EDITORS NOTE: Image contains graphic content.) An injured man rests in a chair after a large explosion on August 4, 2020, in Beirut, Lebanon. Video shared on social media showed a structure fire near the port of Beirut followed by a second massive explosion, which damaged surrounding buildings and injured hundreds (Daniel Carde/Getty Images)

The culprit? 2,750 tons of Ammonium nitrate, a common but highly explosive chemical that has been used wartime explosives but is also used to make fertilizer. The large quantity of the chemical, whose explosive force was equivalent to 1.1 kilotons of TNT, had been confiscated by the government from the abandoned ship MV Rhosus and stored in the port without the requisite safety measures for six years. The mistake has proved unimaginably fatal. 

But it is not a new mistake. A trip through history indicates humanity's tussle with the volatile chemical and its inability to learn from past tragedies has been ongoing for more than seven decades. Go back to 1947 to Texas City, Texas, and an eerily similar story unfolds, with the key difference being that the ammonium nitrate was still on the ship that it came on. 

On April 16, 1947, the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history was brought about by one of history's largest non-nuclear explosions triggered by a mid-morning fire started on board the ship, French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp.

According to ABC13, the Texas Volunteer Fire Department was called but the fire continued to grow, and the hold of the ship continued to get hotter. In what proved to be a grave error, the ship's captain then tried to extinguish the fire by forcing steam into the cargo hold, which possibly resulted in the steam vapors liquefying the ammonium nitrate into nitrous oxide, an extremely volatile substance. 

The smoking remains of the Monsanto chemical plant in the aftermath of the Texas City Disaster, in which nearly 600 people were killed by an explosion of ammonium nitrate fertilizer being transported by the SS Grandcamp, 22nd April 1947. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The smoke took on an unusual tint, drawing spectators to the scene, and at 9:12 am, the ammonium nitrate detonated and sent a massive fireball hundreds of feet into the air. The explosion caused a 15-foot wave that crashed into the docks and flooded the surrounding areas, shattered windows in Houston, which is 42 miles away, and registered as an earthquake on a seismograph in Denver, Colorado. It also blew a barge anchored at the port out of the water, causing it to land 110 feet away, and hurled the two-ton anchor from the Grandcamp 1.6 miles.

Everyone standing nearby, including 28 members of the Texas City Volunteer Fire Department, was killed instantly, and the neighboring Monsanto Chemical Company was destroyed. The flaming debris from the explosion went on to trigger fires at nearby refineries, and at 1:10 am the next day, reached the High Flyer, another ship which was carrying an additional 800 tons of ammonium nitrate, along with sulfur. This set off a second explosion that killed two people and destroyed another nearby ship.

The exact number of the dead was never determined, with official estimates putting the toll between 500 and 600. More than 5,000 were injured and the property damage was determined to be $100 million, which would have been equivalent to $1.1 billion in 2019.

Search and rescue workers comb through what remains of a 50-unit apartment building the day after an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company destroyed the building on April 18, 2013, in West, Texas. According to West Mayor Tommy Muska, around 14 people, including 10 first responders, were killed and more than 150 people were injured when the fertilizer company caught fire and exploded, leaving damaged buildings for blocks in every direction (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But one needn't have to go back another century when one of the deadliest fertilizer plant explosions in US history, again involving ammonium nitrate, partly leveled a rural town in Texas as recently as this decade. 

The 2013 disaster at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, was only a fraction of the size of the explosion in Beirut and Texas City, but still resulted in unprecedented devastation. On April 17 that year, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred with the force of a small earthquake and flattened homes within a five-block radius. It killed fifteen people, mostly firefighters and first responders, injured more than 160, and damaged and destroyed 150 buildings.

Tommy Muska, who was a volunteer firefighter at the time and is now the town's mayor, said the Beirut explosion has once again proved that we have not learned from our past errors. "I don't know what people were thinking about storing that stuff," he told AP. "We don't seem to learn that that chemical is deadly. I feel for those people in Beirut, I surely do."

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