5 Deadliest Explosions in U.S. History

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We’ve learned how to harness the explosive dangers in our world. Natural gas explosions only kill about 17 people a year in the U.S., remarkable considering the widespread use of this gas. We no longer lose large naval vessels to munitions detonations. Safety regulations have reduced explosions in coal mining and other industry. It’s a far cry from the 18th and early 19th centuries, when explosions killing dozens of people were rather common. Yet the improved safety we enjoy today often began with a disaster, including several of the incidents listed here. We did not include acts of war, such as 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, and maritime incidents at sea.

 

5. New London, Texas School Explosion

The New London, Texas, schoolhouse explosion killed almost 300 people.

The New London, Texas, schoolhouse explosion killed almost 300 people.

Considering its highly explosive nature, natural gas explosions are relatively rare in the U.S. A big reason for that is natural gas companies add a smelly chemical called mercaptan to otherwise odorless natural gas, thereby alerting people when there is a leak. That practice began after a deadly natural gas explosion on March 18, 1937 destroyed a school in New London, Texas. A faulty gas hookup and inadequate ventilation in the building’s basement led to a huge buildup of gas. An electrical switch ignited the gas, and the blast demolished the school. One report claims a two-ton concrete block was hurled two miles away.

The explosion’s aftermath was predictably grim, as hysterical parents and workers from nearby oilfields searched the rubble for survivors. The official death toll was listed at 295-plus. Even reporters who showed up to cover the story were pressed into duty searching for survivors. One young reporter fresh out of college, Walter Cronkite, never forgot the carnage. Decades later, as the iconic CBS newscaster neared retirement, Cronkite said, “I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”

 

4. Port Chicago Disaster

The Port Chicago explosion became a milestone in the Civil Rights movement.

The Port Chicago explosion became a milestone in the Civil Rights movement.

The town of Port Chicago, Calif., was a busy place after the U.S military built a major shipping facility near there during World War II. Everything from bombs and bullets to torpedoes and explosive mines shipped through the port. It all went terribly wrong on July 17, 1944 when munitions being loaded on a cargo ship detonated. The crowded port was a perfect recipe for a disastrous explosion. Two ships were loaded with fuel oil and one was full of munitions. The pier and nearby railcars held hundreds of tons more explosives. The resulting explosion destroyed two ships, rail cars, the docks and severely damaged much of the town itself. Seismographs at UC Berkeley registered the event as a 3.4 earthquake on the Richter Scale. The final death toll stood at 320, with 202 of those African-Americans.

Although an inquiry never determined a cause for the explosion, the investigation revealed many troubling issues. The enlisted men loading the munitions had received almost no safety training. Also, officers routinely pushed their enlisted men to load faster, even placing bets on whose crew could load the most tonnage. An outside observer who had declared an imminent disaster was ignored. Afterward, when enlisted African-American men refused to work at a nearby military port three weeks after the disaster, citing fears of another catastrophe, they were quickly court-martialed and sentenced to prison for mutiny (most were released just more than a year later). The entire episode came to highlight racism in the U.S. Navy, and is seen as a milestone in the early Civil Rights movement. President Harry Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the military in 1948.

 

3. Monongah Mining Disaster

The Italian government donated this monument to commemorate the centennial of the Monongah Mining Disaster. Many of those killed in the 1907 disaster were of Italian descent. © Chuck and Alice Riecks

The Italian government donated this monument to commemorate the centennial of the Monongah Mining Disaster. Many of those killed in the 1907 disaster were of Italian descent. © Chuck and Alice Riecks

The morning of Dec. 6, 1907, an explosion rocked two coal mines in Monongah, W.Va. Mine explosions were relatively common in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Several mine explosions claimed more than 200 lives. But the Monongah incident remains the deadliest mine disaster in U.S. history, claiming 362 lives.

The disaster led to the creation of the U.S. Bureau of Mines and improved safety standards, which have helped prevent other such catastrophes through the years. It also provided the origin for an American holiday. On July 5, 1908, Grace Golden Clayton convinced her pastor at a Fairmont, W.Va., church to honor the 250 fathers lost in the disaster. It’s generally regarded as the first celebration of Father’s Day in the U.S., modeled after the first Mother’s Day celebration two months earlier in nearby Grafton, W.Va.

 

2. Texas City Disaster

The explosion in Texas City could be heard 150 miles away.

An aerial view of the massive explosion in Texas City. The blast could be heard 150 miles away.

Ammonium nitrate has some fascinating properties. Farmers use it as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. But it is also used as an explosive; ammonium nitrate fueled the 1995 explosion that devastated the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. However, many explosions occur accidentally. The most destructive such blast in the U.S. occurred the morning of April 16, 1947 in the port of Texas City, Texas. A small fire broke out aboard the SS Grandcamp, a French cargo ship loaded with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. After attempts to extinguish the fire failed, the ship’s captain ordered steam pumped into the hold, hoping to douse the fire and preserve the cargo. However, the steam liquefied the ammonium nitrate and superheated the cargo hold; water around the ship even began to boil.

A few minutes after 9 a.m., the ship detonated in what is generally regarded as the largest non-nuclear explosion in U.S. history. The blast shattered windows 40 miles away in Houston and was heard 150 miles away. The explosion demolished the Grandcamp and ignited oil and chemical facilities near the docks. It also ignited the ammonium nitrate in a nearby ship; it exploded hours later, adding to the devastation. More than 1,000 buildings were destroyed in the incident. Observers compared the damage to the destruction caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At least 581 people were killed, although many bodies were obliterated and never recovered. Around 5,000 more were injured. The U.S. government eventually provided millions in compensation to victims and the families of the deceased.

 

1. SS Sultana

The SS Sultana was overloaded with hundreds of extra former Union POWs when it sank in the Mississippi River in 1865.

Crowded six times beyond capacity with Union soldiers just released from Confederate prison camps, the SS Sultana exploded and sank in the Mississippi River in April 1865. Credit: Library of Congress

Unfortunately, negligence is to blame in many of the worst tragedies. A prime example is the loss of the SS Sultana on April 27, 1965. Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox less than three weeks earlier, and the Sultana was carrying around 2,400 passengers, most of them Union soldiers who had just been released from Confederate prison camps. The ship’s official capacity was listed at less than 400 passengers. As the Sultana steamed north up the Mississippi River in the middle of the night, the overweight vessel listed heavily from side to side, creating dangerously low water levels in the boilers. Near Memphis, three of the ship’s four boilers exploded. Those not killed in the initial explosion died in the resulting fire, or drowned or fell victim to hypothermia in the water. The ship burned to the waterline and sank about seven hours later. As many as 1,800 men lost their lives in the disaster.

An investigation after the incident found the Sultana’s captain had taken bribes to overload the ship, and he had refused to stay in port to fix a damaged boiler — possibly the first boiler to explode. Despite being the deadliest maritime disaster in American history, the Sultana’s demise was overshadowed by other news that month, including the assassination of President Lincoln, the death of John Wilkes Booth a day earlier, and Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox.

 

One More: Mobile Magazine Explosion

Less than a month after the Sultana disaster, another Civil War-related explosion claimed the lives of around 300 people. On the afternoon of May 25, an ammunition depot in Mobile, Ala., exploded. The blast sank ships in the nearby Mobile River and sparked a fire that burned much of the town. The New York Times reported, “The entire city is more or less injured by the explosion.”

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