Read an Excerpt
City on Fire
The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Battle
April 7, 1947
His heart is racing, and his thin hands shakily reach out from under the cool bedsheets for the first of his two daily packs of Old Gold smokes. Each night over the last two weeks it's been the same thing. It's something numbing and far beyond weariness, beyond depression. It's like stepping through a door he's opened a million times before, and falling, drowning, into a tunnel of black cotton.
Hours ago, after he had finished dinner at the home of some friends, he had led his twin brother into the moist evening. The fronds on two raggedy palms down by Bay Street were flapping like the arms of a straw man. A mile out in moonlit Galveston Bay, the swaying spotlights from the shrimp boats reflected on the water as if they were fireflies moving over a mirror. Bill Roach leaned against his crinkled, rusted Ford and stared into the open face of his twin brother, Johnny. They had done a lot of traveling together. They had been inseparable for years, coming to Texas, going back to their hometown of Philadelphia -- locked in endless road trips across America.
Bill finally tells Johnny that he is going to die: "I'm not quite resigned to die yet. I still have a lot I'd like to do. But that's what God wants and I have to accept it ... surrender."
It was, of course, like looking into his own damned face. They were almost perfectly identical. Bill let his words settle in. Johnny, unblinking behind his glasses, didn't make a sound or move a muscle. Bill could see his brother holding tight. Finally, Johnny exhaled and said he'd try to understand, even if he couldn't.
Bill said there was more: "It's not just me. A lot of people are going to die. There's going to be blood in the streets."
A tugboat captain plowing through the pewter-colored waters off of Texas City says the waterfront "looks like an ominous Oz" -- a gun-metal fortress of towering, riotously intertwined pipes, catalytic cracking furnaces, steam superheaters, domed oil storage tanks, catwalks, condensers, and two-hundred-foot-high funnels shooting twenty-foot-long gas flares into the sky. All of it is linked to long lines of tin-roof warehouses, rusted railroad cars, and the concrete-lined docks -- and all of it is coursing with the liquid lifeblood of Texas City: millions of barrels of oil, gas, benzol, propane, benzene, kerosene, chlorine, styrene, hydrochloric acid, and a necromancer's trough of every other petrochemical imaginable.
For decades, this billion-dollar stretch of oil refineries, oil tank farms, and chemical plants has been turned into one of the most lucrative, strategic petrochemical centers in the world by the Rockefellers, Howard Hughes, and even the far-flung members of the Bush family.
Forty miles southeast of Houston, ten miles north of Galveston, Texas City has been carved out of an isolated, unforgiving stretch of the Gulf of Mexico coastline. The yawning, splotchy sky often looks like stained concrete. The pregnant humidity rubs against the skin like a heated stranger. Clouds of mosquitoes puff up out of mushy ditches.
And twenty months earlier, Bill Roach couldn't have been happier to be anywhere else on earth.
He had called Johnny to tell him that he had just sliced open a letter from the Catholic bishop in Galveston. It contained the orders assigning Bill to Texas City. Roach was ecstatic. It was as if his entire life had been a process of preparation for coming to this hidden piece of the United States.
Texas City was a vital, heavily guarded defense-industry town during every phase of World War II. Half the almost twenty thousand people who lived there were making gas for military vehicles, aviation fuel for American planes, tin for a thousand different military uses, tons of synthetic rubber to keep tanks, Jeeps, and troop trucks rolling. Texas City was a frontier city run by the military, oil companies, metal companies, and chemical companies who were doing billions of dollars of work for the war effort. When the war ended, the town never slowed down -- it simply became another staging area for the next war, the one that would be called the Cold War.
Years earlier, the Chamber of Commerce had come up with a slogan: "Texas City: Port of Opportunity." Lately, the chamber had been using another slogan: "Texas City: Heart of the Greatest Industrial Development in the Country." The local newspaper, the Sun, was using variations of both in its masthead.
In the last seven years Texas City has tripled in size, and every day more strangers are setting foot there from every corner of the country. When those newcomers first turn off the Houston highway and steer east to Texas City and its waterfront, they can see through their bug-splattered windshields that the place has been hammered into existence without regard to aesthetics.
They are arriving at an American town with few pretensions. Texas City lacks the theaters, operas, greenbelts, promenades, burnished mansions, gazebos, seaside parks, public monuments, grand libraries, and fine restaurants that are found in Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans. It is a working-class coastal town, and most everyone knows that the massive amounts of money generated there rarely stay in the city. People are paid a living wage, often because they belong to a union, but the billion-dollar industrial zone has barely been taxed. Union Carbide, Amoco, and other international industries clustered into that metal world fanning out from the waterfront are located just outside the old city limits set up by the founding fathers -- and they never generated tax revenues to put up streetlights, to open more schools, to move the library out of the back of City Hall, to suck the mosquito ditches, to pay for a fireboat.
But Texas City has steady paychecks. City on Fire
The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Battle. Copyright © by Bill Minutaglio. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.