Disasters in Texas History You May Not be Familiar With

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Though Texas history has had its ups and downs, some of the tragedies tend to get overlooked in history class. It’s not because teachers are remiss in educating students about bad times in the state’s history, but these events did not necessarily strike deeply in the memories of everyone in the state, or they occurred too recently to make it into the history books. Learning about these Texas history disasters will ensure that the people whose lives were irrevocably changed will not be forgotten.

1. Texas City Disaster

Texas history disasters The remnants of one of the ships from the Texas City disaster three days after the explosion.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Some people are still around who recall when the Texas City disaster occurred. In 1947, a pair of ships docked in Texas City exploded, the second explosion taking place 15 hours after the first. At the time, America stocked ships full of supplies to send to Europe to help the nations there rebuild after the devastating effects of World War II. Part of that recovery required the shipment of fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) to be used either for growing crops or to create explosives. Both ships, the Grandcamp and the High Flyer had fertilizer in their cargo holds, but the Grandcamp would be the one to catch fire.

The local fire department, either not knowing the contents of the ship or understanding the implications, tried to steam the fire out by sealing the cargo hold and pumping steam inside to deprive the fire of oxygen while protecting the rest of the cargo on board. This failed, though, because ammonium nitrate reacted with the water in the steam to create its own source of oxygen (being nitrogen oxide.) Eventually, the heat and pressure from the sealed cargo hold caused this ship to explode around 9:12 a.m., killing 567 people, including the crew aboard the ship, several spectators, and almost all the Texas City volunteer firefighters. The shock wave from the explosion rippled through the atmosphere, destroying 1,000 buildings on land and causing people as far away as Louisiana to feel it and people in Galveston to be knocked to their knees.

The first explosion triggered another fire aboard the High Flyer, which blew up 15 hours later, destroying both that ship and the nearby SS Wilson B Keene. As terrible as this incident was, it could have been much worse. One of the two ships, the Grandcamp, should have been docked at the Port of Houston, but that city refused to allow vessels to load ammonium nitrate. Had it blown up in the port of Houston, it could have killed thousands. Today, the Texas City explosion ranks as one of the most well-known of Texas history disasters, but it was not the only one.

2. Waco Tornado

Texas history disasters The lighter colored bricks indicate where this building, then a Dr Pepper bottling facility, was damaged by the Waco tornado outbreak

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 1953, a tornado outbreak ripped through central Texas, devastating the town of Waco and surrounding communities. Until that time, the generally held belief was tornadoes couldn’t hit Waco because the city lay lower than the rest of the area. A category F5 that sliced through downtown Waco changed that belief quickly. On May 11, 1953, the tornado outbreak would claim 114 lives and injure 600 while laying waste to much of the town. Downtown buildings not made of steel quickly fell to the severe winds, killing or injuring those inside. Around $51 million in property damage resulted, but the loss of life could never have a dollar value placed on it. Though tornadoes occur frequently in Texas history disasters, such a large loss of life in a city is rare.

3. New London School Explosion

Texas history disasters New London School explosion aftermath

Photo: Facebook/New London, TX School Disaster Museum

In 1937, one of the most devastating Texas history disasters was a school tragedy which occurred in New London, Texas. In a school with just 500 students and 40 teachers, 294 people died when the school exploded from a natural gas leak.

Before the New London disaster, natural gas had no odor added to it, so if it leaked from a pipe, no one would know unless that person could hear the gas escaping. In the school, a gas leak had filled a basement room with natural gas, and an unaware teacher, Lemmie Butler, turned on a sander. The spark created ignited the gas and caused the explosion and collapse of the school building. The explosion created such a large amount of force that it hurled a two-ton concrete piece 200 feet, where it crushed a nearby vehicle.

Though tragic, the New London school explosion prompted the Texas legislature to require gas companies to add an odor-causing agent to natural gas. Therefore leaking natural gas today smells distinctively like rotten eggs. It’s a warning that cannot be confused with a normal odor to get out of the building.