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TIANJIN PORT DISASTER-THE WORST EVER? NOT YET, NOT BY A LONG SHOT

21 Aug 2011

UNFORTUNATELY, HISTORY IS REPLETE WITH WORLD-CLASS PORT AND INLAND EXPLOSIVE INCIDENTS. So many in fact that, we are forced to limit our comparison to those that occurred in the past 70 years (or so). Perhaps not so strangely, many of them involve the explosive detonation of nitrates and/or munitions. Note: Nitrates are used worldwide for agricultural fertilizer products; hence are ubiquitous, inexpensive, and unfortunately, can be used as precursor for explosives of all sorts. Munitions involving small and large cartridges, artillery shells (small and huge fused devices) torpedoes, and non-nuclear bombs of all sizes and capabilities. To this we must add industrial explosives used in mining, tunnel boring, etc. (referred to as: Dynamite). Most such are made from derivatives of nitro-cellulose in different compounds. Then there are the High explosives such as Centex, TNT, Plastique, and other compounds normally strictly controlled by governmental offices and restricted to use by the military in most nations. Today, there exist many previously unheard- of “Precursor” compounds used in the Industrial production of chemicals ranging from textiles to amphetamines, and other mind altering “designer drugs”. Were any of these compounds present in the Tianjin explosion? Probably, but there are worse chemical compounds in term of their lingering effects such as Sodium Cyanide. It has been detected in huge quantities in the water used by the firemen to suppress the fires. Many dead fish have been found several kilometers from the port, attributed to chemical poisoning. Who cares the most about what chemicals they are exposed to? Firemen and First Responders of all kinds; that’s who! As the extent of the damage becomes known, the public has been well advised to leave the area for other cities. China’s capital city of Beijing is only about 150 Km. away as the crow flies. As of of 15 August 2015, the number of evacuees has grown to more than 6,000 The government has issued an evacuation order fearing further explosions; but not all residents complied. Perhaps it is a problem of: “were do we go to? and, who will feed us? Such problems really tax a government.

THE 2015 PORT OF TIANJIN, NORTH CHINA EXPLOSIONS started on Wednesday, 12 August 2015 about 23:30Hrs. The first explosion occurred and registered as a magnitude 2.3 earthquake. Initial reports estimate that the first explosion was equivalent to 3 tons of TNT. Shortly thereafter, a second more powerful explosion occurred, estimated to be equivalent to 21 tons of TNT, causing most of the damage and injuries. Its shock-waves were felt many kilometers away. The resulting fireballs reached hundreds of meters high, and were visible from space. On15 August, a further series of 8 explosions occurred in the port as fire from the original blasts continued to spread. It is believed the first explosion occurred at a shipping container storage area containing calcium carbide, sodium nitrate, and potassium nitrate two explosions occurred within 30 seconds of each other at the facility, which is located in the Binhai-New Area, North China. Over 100 people were killed, and hundreds of others were injured. The cause of the explosions was not immediately known, but initial reports pointed to an “Industrial accident” (so said the port authorities). Fires caused by the initial explosions continued to burn uncontrollably throughout the weekend; repeatedly causing secondary explosions. Eight (8) additional explosions occurred on Saturday, 15 August. The Central China government immediately began a Military-like PR Campaign to minimize the extent of the dangers still prevalent (supposedly to prevent panic), and even prevented news media photographers from entering the area (for their own safety-so they said)… But, how does the TIANJIN PORT disaster compare with other such disasters? It is way too early to assess the total extent of the damage (and will remain so for at least the foreseeable) future; however, in terms of lives lost it may never equal the the deadliest industrial accident in USA history: THE PORT OF TEXAS CITY DISASTER OF 1947. See below.

 

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THE DEADLIEST INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT IN USA HISTORY

 THE “PORT OF TEXAS CITY” DISASTER OCCURRED APRIL 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas city. It was the deadliest industrial accident in USA history, and one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions to date. The incident began with a mid-morning fire on board the vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the Port Texas City). Her cargo was about 2,300 tons of Ammonium Nitrate which caught fire and detonated, creating a chain-reaction of further fires and explosions in several other ships in the port, railroad cars, vehicles, and nearby oil and Chemical storage facilities, killing at least 581 people (plus many still missing); including all but one of the 29 members of the Texas City Fire Department.

THE “SS GRANDCAMP” (French Registry), WAS A RECENTLY DE-MOTHBALLED 437-FOOT-LONG, SURPLUS, WWII LIBERTY SHIP built in1942, and given to a French Line to assist in the rebuilding of Europe (we believe the SS designation implied “Surplus Ship”) Along with ammonium nitrate (a very common cargo on the high seas), it was also carrying small arms ammunition, machinery, and bales of sisal twine. Docked nearby SS Grandcamp on the port, were the SS High Flyer (blew-up 15 Hrs after the SS Grandcamp, and also the SS Wilson B. Keene, the High Flyer contained an additional 872 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, and 1,600 tons of Sulfur (a perfect formula for explosives). The ammonium nitrate in the two (2) ships and in the adjacent warehouse was on its way to farmers in Europe. Several other moored ships (also loaded with nitrates) caught fire and exploded. Let us remember that ammonium nitrate is not only an excellent agricultural fertilizer, but also a component of high explosives even today. On that fateful day, longshoremen reported the ammonium bags were warm to the touch prior to loading.

ON APRIL 16, 1947, AROUND 8:00 A.M., SMOKE WAS SPOTTED in the cargo hold of the Grandcamp while she was still moored. Over the next hour, maritime attempts to extinguish the fire or bring it under control, failed as a red glow returned after each effort to douse the fire with water. Shortly before 9:00 a.m., the captain ordered his men to “steam the holds”. Thoughts linger that such action only exacerbated the ignition; Meanwhile, the fire had attracted a crowd of spectators along the shoreline, who believed they were a safe distance away; Eventually, the ship’s hatches were blown open and yellow-orange smoke billowed out. The unusual color of the smoke attracted even more spectators. Spectators also noted that the water around the docked ship was already boiling from the heat, and the splashing water touching the hull of the ship was vaporized into steam. The cargo hold and deck began to bulge as the pressure of the steam increased inside. HMMM!- Time to scoot!!!

AT 9:12 A.M THE SS GRANDCAMP EXPLODED with a tremendous blast sending a 15 foot wave that was detectable nearly 100 miles off the Texas shoreline, and leveled nearly 1,000 buildings on land. The SS Grandcamp explosion destroyed the Monsanto Chemical Plant and resulted in ignition of refineries and chemical tanks on the waterfront. Falling bales of burning sisal twine from the ship’s cargo added to the damage and with the fires raging throughout Texas City, first responders from other areas were initially unable to reach the site of the disaster for several days. It is remindful of the PORT OF TEXAS CITY which also began reconstruction immediately after the disaster.

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE DISASTER Victims’ bodies quickly filled the local morgue. Several bodies were laid out in the local high school’s gymnasium for identification by loved ones. More than 5,000 people were injured, with 1,784 admitted to 21 area hospitals. More than 500 homes were destroyed and hundreds damaged leaving 2,000 homeless. The seaport was destroyed and many nearby businesses were flattened or burned. Over 1,100 vehicles were damaged, and 362 railroad freight cars were obliterated. Burning wreckage ignited everything within miles, including dozens of oil storage tanks and chemical tanks. Even the nearby city of Galveston Texas, was covered with an oily fog which left deposits over every exposed outdoor surface. The property damage was estimated at $1.06 billion in today’s terms. One of the propellers on the High Flyer was blown off, and found almost a mile inland; it is now part of a memorial park, and sits near the the SS Grandcamp 1.8 ton anchor which was also hurled 1.62 miles across the city. Fires resulting from the cataclysmic events were still burning a week after the disaster, and the process of body recovery took nearly a month. Of the dead, 405 were identified, and 63 have never been identified. An additional 113 people were classified as: missing; these include 27 firefighters who were aboard SS Grandcamp when she exploded. It is really difficult to visualize the full magnitude of the disaster (perhaps like pictures of Hiroshima in WWII).

THE CAUSE OF THE INITIAL FIRE/EXPLOSION ON BOARD THE GRANDCAMP WAS NEVER DETERMINED. The Texas City Disaster is still generally considered the worst industrial accident in American history. There is some well-based speculation that there may have been hundreds more killed but uncounted, including visiting seamen, non-census laborers and their families and, an untold number of travelers. Strangely however; there were some survivors as close as 70 feet (21 m) from the dock.

RECONSTRUCTION OF THE PORT BEGAN SOON AFTERWARDS. A positive result of the Port Of Texas City disaster was widespread disaster response planning to help organize plant, local, and regional responses to emergencies. Within days after the disaster, major companies that had lost facilities in the explosions announced plans to rebuild in Port Of Texas City, and even expand their operations. Some Companies implemented hiring policies of retaining all of the hourly workers who had previously worked at destroyed facilities, with plans to utilize them in the rebuilding. The expenditures for industrial reconstruction were estimated to have been approximately $1.06 B (2015 Dollars). Payouts for fire insurance claims reached nearly $41.8Million. Difficulties in the settlement of liabilities caused the Federal Government enactment of Tort laws which exist today.

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WHO IS ULTIMATELY TO BLAME IN SUCH DISASTERS?

Industrial accidents will happen; that is the reason most industrialized countries have found it necessary to create governmental Agencies etc. to assist industry in preventing them, and to improve the safety of the general public.

The Occupational Safety and Health (Act) Administration(OSHA) is an Agency of the United States Department of Labor, its mission is to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance”. If only they would!!!- Conservatives say: “that costs jobs”- The facts do not bear out their contentions, but they appeal to their base very successfully.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In the USA they would be responsible for the temporary wellbeing of displaced persons in any disaster area. They have faltered but come through in the past, if only to wastefully give away money to their friends who are not in need. We remember Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans brought about the FEMA purchase of several thousand trailer homes which were never occupied, and eventually sold for cents on the Dollar.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA or sometimes called USEPA) is an Agency of the US Federal Government, United States Department of Labor, which was created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environments. We wish it would be allowed by conservatives (and some liberals) to perform its duties. Unfortunately we have a “do nothing Congress” which has as its function to block the actions of our president. I mean when these folks do something good for the people, it is probably for the wrong reason(s).

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the UN that is concerned with international public health. Did you ever hear of anything good they did?

THAT BEING SAID, WHO IS REALLY TO BLAME FOR THESE CALAMITIES? We believe mostly wealthy Corporations, and a few Multi-billionaires, who because of their unbridled greed, and abundant funding, act like a Black-hole (in space) into which gravitate all susceptible public officials (those not so inclined are quickly dismissed, or sidelined), never to be heard from again. It is called: Corruption and defined as accepting favors or emoluments for taking action for or against, rules/laws not favorable to their financial/other interests. Now then, I hope china has counterparts to the organizations we have in the USA, and sincerely hope they take hold, and work to help to protect and compensate the working class for their losses in lives and property.

UPDATE 1. On 26 Aug 2015, CCTV News announced  that Officials from the City’s Transport, Work safety, and  Customs department, as well as the Tianjin Port group Company, are under investigation on charges of “dereliction of duty”, and “abuse of power”; Separately, China’s “Ministry of Public Security” announced the arrest of twelve(12) persons (including high ranking corporate Officers) from the “Tianjin International Ruihai Logistics”. It was their Containers that first expoded causing the entire incident.  We truly hope China will show the world a good example of dealing with corruption and conivance.

UPDATE 2. As of 12 Sep 2015 (a month after the incident), the official casualty report was 173 deaths, 8 missing, and 797 non-fatal injuries. The Central Government has offered to compensate the first responders (we do not yet know how), and a semblance of normalcy has returned to the Port. We feel certain a lot of rebuilding still remains to be accomplished, but no one doubts Chinese diligence.

Edward Oliver Gonzalez (gonzedo)

RELATED ARTICLE: GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE (GAO) LAMBASTES NITRATES INDUSTRY Post 11-2014

P.S. We have once again opened the comment column. Please use it wisely, and not simply to promote your business.

 


August 21, 2015 at 11:37 PM
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