Saturday, August 15, 2015

Historic Port Explosions

The massive explosion in Tianjin, China got me thinking about three other port explosions.

Halifax, 1917
It was World War I and the French ship SS Monte-Blanc was transporting munitions from New York to Bordeaux with a refueling stop in Halifax. Halifax harbor is squeezed in the middle by the Narrows. Inching through the Narrows at just one knot, the Monte-Blanc collided with a Norwegian ship carrying relief supplies to the war zone. The collision started a fire that grew out of control. The Monte-Blanc crew abandoned the ship to burn. It exploded.
It was the largest man made detention in human history, not to be exceeded until the invention of the atomic bomb. Its three kiloton yield leveled large parts of Halifax up to a half mile away and tossed the 3,000 ton steamship over 1,000 feet out of the water. Over 2,000 people died but the French crew survived except for one man struck by flying debris.

Texas City, 1947
The largest non-military explosion in human history. Another French ship, the SS Grandcamp, was loading ammonia nitrate. Berthed next to her was another ship, the SS High Flyer, holding ammonium nitrate and next to both of them were warehouses full of the explosive chemicals. The fertilizer in the Grandcamp caught fire. Firefighting efforts failed so the captain ordered the hold sealed and steam injected. This was stupid as steam will not douse an ammonium nitrate fire but it will convert the chemical into the even more volatile nitrous oxide.

The fire was burning so hot the water in the harbor was boiling. Eventually, the ship exploded with a yield of nearly 3 kilotons, sending super heated shrapnel into chemical plants, refineries, and warehouses along the waterfront. The shockwave was so strong it tore the wings of two planes flying over the scene. And the explosion set the High Flyer on fire. She exploded 15 hours later completing the devastation.

Port Chicago, CA, 1944
Port Chicago is a few miles east of San Francisco and was the location of the US Navy's main munitions depot. All the explosives that were blowing the Pacific to hell passed through the port. The Navy was a solid bastion of segregation during World War II so the workforce at Port Chicago was 100% African-American.

The men had no training as stevedores. Their officers had no experience running a port. When the longshoremens union learned how unsafely the port was operating they offered to train the men. The commanding officers curtly refused help because military operations are always secret. Besides, working safely might mean working slower and the only thing the officers cared about was speed, speed, speed.

Now we can finally get to the night of July 14. We are approaching midnight and the SS E. A. Bryan was already fully loaded with fuel oil. Its hold were holding various munitions including live incendiary bombs and shock sensitive depth charges. Something happened, there was a small explosion followed by a massive explosion. The only people in a position to know exactly what happened were vaporized in the explosion.

The E. A. Bryan was obliterated and two others ships sunk. Nearly 400 people died, 202 African-American. A Navy board of inquiry laid the blame of the dead folk. None of the unsafe practices were changed so three weeks later 258 workers decided they would stop working until safety protocols were in place.

Remember, these were black folk so the Navy called it a mutiny and threatened to execute the workers. Fifty men were charged and found guilty of mutiny.

Ports are dangerous places to live and work. Also, stay away from French cargo vessels as they have a nasty habit of blowing up.

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