Point Lowly Peninsula’s future mix an explosive cocktail of industrial interests

The Point Lowly Peninsula, despite its proven popularity with locals and holiday makers, is currently marked by the South Australian Government for wholesale industrialisation. The state’s pending mining boom has many private sector proponents salivating over allotments of land which were zoned for Special Industry – Hydrocarbons back in the early 1980’s. To date, Santos’ Gas Fractionation plant and the Port Bonython loading jetty are the only industrial footprints on the Peninsula. Over the past 30 years, the peninsula has grown in popularity as a quiet and largely unspoilt destination for holiday makers, eco-tourists, local weekenders and resident shackies. Now further industrialisation threatens to compromise social and environmental interests to benefit the short term interests of the mining sector. If approved, current plans will introduce new diesel storage facilities, a massive desalination plant, an ammonium nitrate explosives plant, LNG refineries, a new mineral export shipping facility and rail and conveyor linkages. With the increased industrial footprint and freight load, will residents and tourists be squeezed out altogether? If not, how can public safety be assured when tourists and volatile and hazardous chemical industries share the same roads?

Point Lowly Peninsula as promoted to the private sector for wholesale industrialisation, October 2011

Point Lowly Peninsula as promoted to the private sector for wholesale industrialisation, October 2011

Interestingly, the worst industrial disaster in the history of the United States of America involved a disturbingly similar mix of industry, waterfront activity and shared use. In Texas City’s case, ships loading ammonium nitrate adjacent to refineries, chemical processing plants and storage tanks on shore made for a deadly cocktail. The below summary of the event which became known as the Texas City Disaster serves as a chilling reminder that where industry operates, accidents happen… and humans are very rarely prepared for the worst-case scenario. The following excerpt is republished from the book Great Ship Disasters by Kit and Carolyn Bonner, published in 2003. A purchase link for the book which makes fascinating reading is available below the article. An additional detailed account of the incident is available at this website.

With the Lowly Peninsula’s proposed ammonium nitrate explosives plant expected to schedule a community consultation session in Whyalla very soon, it would pay for the South Australian community and decision makers to look to the past and learn from the mistakes of others. Is it appropriate to concentrate industry for economics sake, and in doing so risk undermining the peninsula’s existing values, and exponentially amplify the potential for catastrophe and loss of human life?



Texas City Disaster - Refineries and industrial structures billow with smoke as fire spreads

Texas City Disaster - Refineries and industrial structures billow with smoke as fire spreads


On April 16, 1947, there were an estimated 50 cargo vessells of all types loading and unloading goods in Galveston Bay. Several were oil tankers that were loading and unloading petroleum products, many were small vessells for local traffic, and three former Liberty ships from World War II were also in port. The former Liberty ships played a major part in the Texas City Disaster.

All three vessels- the French-registered and French-owned SS Grandcamp, the SS Highflyer, and the SS Wilson B. Keene– were tied to the docking area adjacent to the Monsanto Chemical Company and near four dozen major oil tanks.

April 16, 1947, dawned with a cool breeze from the north, yet the fumes traditionally associated with an oil pumping and chemical storage facility remained. The Grandcamp had been sold by the US government to a French company. It was being loaded with Ammonium nitrate fertilizer and had been partially filled with cargo. The Grandcamp had a good pedigree. She was built in Los Angeles in 1942 and christened the SS Benjamin R. Curtis. She was 422.8 feet long, had a beam of 57 feet, and its gross tonnage was 7,176.

There was no overall masterplan for dealing with a a large-scale disaster such as explosion or major fire, and conventional wisdom in 1947 was that the region had just come through a major war without any great problems, so any fires and so forth would be dealt with locally. The demilitiarised Grandcamp was moored at Pier O and, aside from taking on various sundry and other cargo items, was having some work done on her turbine casing. This temporarily immobilised the ship, as the single propeller would not turn over. The Grandcamp carried almost 2500 tons of ammonium nitrate, among other items.

Texas City Disaster: As Monsanto's refinery & processing plants burn, the sky fills with heavy smoke

Texas City Disaster: As Monsanto's refinery & processing plants burn, the sky fills with heavy smoke

Ammonium nitrate: From explosive to fertilizer

Ammonium nitrate was manufactured in limited quantities before World War II. Production was vastly increased during the war, because it was a necessary and inexpensive component of explosives, with about half the explosive power of TNT. After the war, the brownish crystalline substance was now in huge surplus, and it served the additional function of being an excellent chemical fertiliser. Texas City alone had shipped over 75,000 tons of the material to war-ravaged Europe over the previous two years in ex-Liberty ships just like the Grandcamp and ex-Victory cargo vessels. There were other ports shipping dangerous materials such as Baltimore, Maryland and New Orleans, Louisiana. Aside from an abundance of Ammonium Nitrate, there were surpluses in virtually everything produced for the war effort, including 2,710 Liberty ships and thousands of aircraft and other vehicles. The United States had been the arsenal of democracy and it now was the bargain dealer of the same materials.

The Army Bureau of Ordinance tag on the ammonium nitrate packaging did not alert the civilian handlers to its level of danger. It was handled just like bags of wheat or concrete, as many later testified, and when the Grandcamp’s carpenter, Julien Gueril, smelled smoke from the opened hatch over hold number 4, there was no great fear. Safety was quite lax, and despite the prohibitions against smoking cigarettes, it was common for nearly everyone to smoke in all areas except where expressly forbidden. Posted signs were ignored, and some red warning signs had cigarette butts crushed out on them.

Stevedores (men who load and unload the vessels) had started work early that day because theere were many vessels to work with, so shortly after 8am, they pulled the hatch cover off hold number four and began to work. By 8:25, Gueril and others smelled smoke from the lower level of hold number four, where stacks and stacks of poorly packed ammonium nitrate were stuffed. A fire had begun in the hold, which was nothing new, but it required attention.

Texas City Disaster: Medics and volunteers scour the debris for survivors and casualties

Texas City Disaster: Medics and volunteers scour the debris for survivors and casualties

The SS Grandcamp Explodes, Along with Half the Harbor Area

The crew and some of the stevedores attempted to extinguish the blaze, but it was almost inaccessible because it was located in an area far down in the hold. The smoke took a yellowish, gold colour and obscured the feeble efforts of the men with two small water tanks and the contents of a Thermos jug of ice water. The fire quickly grew beyond the control of a city fire department. A hose was lowered into the hold to spray down the lower areas, but the ship’s captain didn’t want to damage the cargo and the ship with thousands of gallons of water. He convinced all those around him to cover the hatch, secure it with tarpaulins, and inject steam into the hold to suppress the fire. Hold number five was aft of hold number four, and it contained small-arms ammunition. The ship’s captain told stevedores to unload that hold as a precaution. Unfortunately, the fire grew at a quantum rate, and the suppression technique did not smother the flames. In fact, the steam built up and blew the hatch cover off. The huge plume of smoke attracted onlookers near the bow of the ship. The events that took place after 9:00 that morning are somewhat debatable, but between 9:12 and 9:15, hold number four in the Grandcamp erupted into a fantastic and devastating explosion that all but vaporized the vessel and everyone around her who were attempting to bring the fire under control. Most of the deaths occurred within 1,000 feet of the ship, but the explosion spread throughout the town. One mile away, a chunk of steel from the Grandcamp crashed through the roof of an automobile and killed the driver instantly. A small plane above was literally shot out of the sky and the pilot was killed.

The Grandcamp, other ships nearby and the Texas City Terminal Railway Company had sounded their ear-piercing alarms just before the explosion, but they provided little help and warning. The rationale behind the explosion was that the steam, combined with the 880 tons of ammonium nitrate, caused thermal decomposition, and with bunker oil tanks in close proximity, it was only a matter of time before an explosion occurred.

The volunteer fire department had arrived with the Republic Oil firefighting unit, and the explosion killed all of these men. There were a few photos taken before the explosion, but the cameramen left when the flames really got out of control. These are the only record of the Grandcamp in its last few minutes as a vessel before being rendered into unrecognisable steel.

The explosion of the Grandcamp could be heard more than 150 miles away, and windows were shattered for miles. A mushroom cloud quickly expanded over the center of the explosion to 2,000 feet away, and, within minutes, shrapnel began to fall all over the harbor, the chemical refining plants and the neighbourhoods close to the harbor. This caused even greater destruction when other flammable materials fed on the explosion, and minor catastrophes erupted and raged out of control.

The Grandcamp and the calamity caused by the ammonium nitrate explosion seemed to be the center of all rescue and firefighting capability. However, another disaster was in the making. The Highflyer, owned by the Lykes Brothers, was moored at another slip across from the Grandcamp, and the sheer force of the Grandcamp‘s explosion caused the Highflyer to break loose from its moorings and slam into another cargo vessel, the Wilson B. Keene. The Highflyer was loaded with ammonium nitrate and contained 1,000 tons of sulfur. The Highflyer was heavily damaged, yet her crew managed to remain aboard and attempt to keep the fire under control. At 1:10 am on the day following the Grandcamp‘s explosion, the Texas City area was rocked with a larger explosion when the Highflyer went up like a box of Roman Candles. This time, the oily cloud soared a mile above the harbor area. Tugs had arrived just moments before to pull the smoking and burning ship away from the slip. When it became apparent that it was too late to save the ship, the crews on the tugs tried to rescue what crew and firefighters they could. The Wilson B. Keene did not fare much better, as she sank at her mooring. At least parts of her still resembled a ship after the explosions.

The first explosion of the Grandcamp destroyed nearly all of Texas City’s firefighting equipment and most of it firemen. Further explosions and fires decimated the remaining force plus most of the local emergency personnel. There is no official number of how many were killed in the blasts and in all of the collateral damage, but it is estimated there were 576 dead and more than 3,000 injured. Over one third of Texas City’s homes were destroyed or condemned, and the huge Monsanto plant was levelled. Two-thousand people were left homeless. Five thousand people attended the funeral services for those who were killed. There are many people who were never identified in one of Texas’ worst disasters.

Texas City Disaster: A victim's body lies among the wreckage and debris

Texas City Disaster: A victim's body lies among the wreckage and debris

Another “It Can’t Happen Here” Myth

The US Coast Guard was somewhat unprepared for the magnitude of difficulty, and it could only bring the buoy-tender Iris and a small fireboat to assist. In terms of local fire equipment on the water (fireboats), there was very little for the emergency personnel to work with. This was due to the mindset in the immediate post-war years. The thought that “it could not happen here” was pervasive.

Ultimately, 4,000 volunteers assisted in firefighting, first aid, body removal and cleanup. More than 1,200 medical and aid professionals descended on the area as soon as possible to help. Soon, everything was under control and smoking debris was the only thing left of a $20 million Monsanto plant and a bustling commercial and harbor area. Although the disaster did not occur at sea, ships and their cargo caused the disaster. It pointed out the need for all ports to have a comprehensive plan for preventing catastrophes and reducing their impact should they occur. Comprehensive plans have since been developed for a major emergency.

Texas City Disaster: Aerial view of the damage to the Monsanto facility and waterfront area

Texas City Disaster: Aerial view of the damage to the Monsanto facility and waterfront area

This account of the Texas City Disaster appears in the book Great Ship Disasters by Kit and Carolyn Bonner, published in 2003. A percentage of any purchases made via this Amazon.com link will contribute directly to our forthcoming film production.


Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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