City on Fire: The Forgotten Story of a Disaster That Destroyed a Town and the Landmark Legal Battle That Ensued

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A "remarkable," "incendiary" and "heart-wrenching" account of America's worst industrial disaster and the landmark legal case it spawned.

On a day that dawned with brisk breezes, a clear sky, and perfect temperatures, the small town of Texas City suddenly found itself facing the greatest industrial disaster in the most industrialized nation on the planet. And, in time, the survivors of that all-American city found themselves wondering if their...

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A "remarkable," "incendiary" and "heart-wrenching" account of America's worst industrial disaster and the landmark legal case it spawned.

On a day that dawned with brisk breezes, a clear sky, and perfect temperatures, the small town of Texas City suddenly found itself facing the greatest industrial disaster in the most industrialized nation on the planet. And, in time, the survivors of that all-American city found themselves wondering if their own government had delivered them into this hell on earth.In 1947, Texas City was experiencing boom times, bristling with chemical and oil plants, built to fuel Europe's seemingly endless appetite for the raw materials needed to rebuild its ruined cities. When an explosion ripped through its docks, the effect was cataclysmic. Thousands of people were wounded or killed, the fire department was decimated, planes were shot out of the sky, and massive ocean-bound freighters disintegrated. The blast knocked people to their knees in Galveston, ten miles away; broke windows in Houston, forty miles away; and rattled a seismograph in Denver, Colorado. Chaos reigned, the military was scrambled, the FBI launched investigations-and ordinary citizens turned into heroes.

For months on end, the brave residents of what had once been an average American town struggled to restore their families, their homes, their lives. And they also struggled to confront another welling nightmare-the possibility that the tragedy that almost erased their city from existence might have been caused by the very government they thought would protect them. CITY ON FIRE is a painstakingly researched saga of one of the most profound but forgotten disasters inAmerican history. The Texas City Disaster was a searing, apocalyptic event that had an enormous ripple effect for millions of people around the world.

It changed the way Americans respond to disasters and the way people viewed the American government-the Texas City Disaster opened the door for average Americans to confront their government and its leaders in the nation's courts of law. It was the first time that the United States of America was named as a defendant in a case that, after a series of dizzying twists and turns, would end up in the nation's highest court.

Ultimately, the story of Texas City is a story of courage, humanity, bravery, and a painful quest for justice. It is the story of ordinary Americans behaving in extraordinary ways-and serving as role models for dignity and grace.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Lone Star State journalist Bill Minutaglio (First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty) has given us an important social history with this tale about one of the worst industrial disasters of 20th-century America: the 1947 explosions that killed hundreds and injured thousands in Texas City, Texas. In the aftermath of WWII, Texas City was the site of both a booming chemical industry and an idealistic approach to government that centered on taxing big corporations and improving the lot of minority citizens. It was also a seaport through which the U.S. government secretly began shipping ammonium nitrate fertilizer to Europe. When a cargo ship loaded with the dangerous substance exploded, it touched off a wave of destruction that leveled the city.

Avoiding dry reportage, Minutaglio presents a heartrending narrative that reveals the human tragedy of the disaster -- both from the immediate incident and the long battle with industry and government that followed. He digs deep to bring to life the story of the now elderly eyewitnesses and victims who successfully sued the federal government but failed over the course of decades ever to get compensation for their losses. Though some readers may find the book wanting on technical merits -- for example, the legal struggles named in the subtitle get only the barest treatment in the final chapters -- they will be won over by the drama in Minutaglio's snapshot of a place where a better future was destroyed in a single day. Katherine Hottinger

Publishers Weekly
Like the explosions it describes, Minutaglio's account is incendiary reading. Two oceangoing freighters loaded with ammonium nitrate leveled a factory town in 1947. Was it an atomic blast? Terrorism? Judgment Day? The author (First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty) assembles a harrowing mosaic about a blaze during a time of racial divisions and environmental plundering amid petrochemical companies that virtually ruled Texas City, Tex. He pauses to fill in the manufacturing town's pivotal role in WWII and sketches the principals involved in the gargantuan fire. From a priest beset with apocalyptic visions to a battle-scarred mayor, these and other residents come to life. The impact of the story is marred only by slight gaffes: Minutaglio sometimes switches between past tense and present without clear reason. Nonetheless, this tale is evocatively told. His hard-edged prose brands scores of images on readers' minds: the beheaded statue of Mary; a naked father clutching onto his charred automobile; the longshoreman delivered to the morgue even though he isn't dead; and so many more. The book vividly details the carnage as well as some acts of heroism and selflessness. (Jan.)
Library Journal
On April 16, 1947, two huge explosions rocked the port city of Texas City, TX, killing 600 people, injuring thousands more, leveling houses and buildings, and soaking the landscape with toxic chemicals. Cold War sabotage was initially suspected, but the true culprit was a shipment of ammonium nitrate, a chemical that can be a fertilizer or a deadly explosive. The chemical was being manufactured and shipped by the government with no warning label or instructions for safe handling. Angry at this negligence, attorney Russel Markwell brought the first-ever civil class action suit against the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act and won. Though the victory was overturned on appeal as a dangerous precedent, the government's responsibility wasn't in doubt. Over two thirds of the book is a poignant present-tense account of the hours before, during, and after the explosion, bringing to life the horror, pain, and bravery of the people of Texas City. The account of the lawsuit is secondary, as it should be. This terrible story deserves this passionate retelling. For all collections.-Deirdre Bray Root, Middletown P.L., OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Texas-based journalist and Bush family biographer Minutaglio (First Son, 1999, etc.) grimly describes a horrifying disaster that revealed grave negligence in the post-WWII manufacturing sector.

Based on 200 interviews with survivors, shrewdly focused on a group of key figures, Minutaglio’s account provides a highly personalized portrait of the tragedy that struck Texas City, Texas, in 1947. With ominous verisimilitude, he portrays a deeply segregated boomtown beholden to the companies whose factories created high employment, in return for which they received much municipal largesse. In 1947, Texas City’s youthful war-hero mayor and a firebrand priest were collaborating on unheard-of social changes, levying taxes on Monsanto, Union Carbide, Amoco, and other corporations, improving conditions for the African-American and Hispanic laborers crowded into "The Bottom" near the putrid waterfront and chemical plants. That spring, the US government began shipping ammonium nitrate fertilizer to Europe through Texas City without alerting locals to the danger of explosion that had caused neighboring ports to ban the substance. On April 16 a fire in the French-crewed ship Grandcamp grew uncontrollably; its colorful smoke drew many observers to the waterfront, where they died by the hundreds when 51,000 bags of ammonium nitrate (unmarked as hazardous) exploded at 9:12 a.m. This caused a tidal wave, sprayed steel shrapnel across the town, and set off numerous secondary explosions of fuel and chemical tanks. The Monsanto plant became an inferno, and that night a second fertilizer-laden ship exploded. The city’s inadequate public services (it didn’t even have a fireboat) were no match for theemergency. Imaginatively using the multiple perspectives to depict the tragedy and its devastating aftermath, Minutaglio conveys a punchy, noir-ish sense of the period. His conclusion is ambiguously uplifting. The survivors’ class-action suit against the government, initially championed by an ultra-conservative judge, was delayed for years in appellate court. Finally, in 1955, special legislation granted them limited relief.

An ugly but necessary meditation on our checkered military-industrial history. Author tour

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060185411
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/7/2003
  • Edition description: FIRST
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 285
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Bill Minutaglio is an award-winning journalist and author of First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty and City on Fire. He has written for many publications including Talk, the New York Times, Outside, and Details, among others. His work was featured, along with that of Ernest Hemingway, in Esquire's list of the greatest tales of survival ever written. He lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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First Chapter

City on Fire
The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Battle

The Priest

April 7, 1947
Texas City

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.
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Customer Reviews

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( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 30, 2013

    I was amazed that until Rachel Maddow mentioned this on her show

    I was amazed that until Rachel Maddow mentioned this on her show April 14, 2013 I had never heard of this tragedy. As a student of American history, I can't imagine how I never heard about Texas City, Texas in 1947. I was born in September, 1946, so I can understand how I missed it growing up. In high school in the Sixties we were not informed of American diasters. But as someone who took many history classes in college, I don't know how this one was ignored.
    Not only does Mr. Minutaglio bring the tragedy itself into horrifying detail, his portraits of those lost and those miaculously saved are poignant. Just when I thought the book was about to end I learned of the lawsuit brought against the United States goverment by the survivors of this unbelievable, avoidable disaster. And they lost!!!
    Every American should read this book. It breaks my heart to think our elected officials were just as callous as they are today, all these years later. I admire the lawyers who fought so valiantly for the survivors who deserved recognition and compensation for their loss -- not that money alone could make up for what they went through. And, remember: This could have been averted. West, Texas is a reminder that we have to pay attention to what is going on around us and like Bill Roach, work to see that our neighbors, families and communities are safe. We can't afford to depend on people in Washington, D.C. to do this for us. My deepest sympathy to those who have written the other reviews of this book; they lived through this unbelievable event. Their lives were changed forever.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2004

    Great information on a forgotten tragedy

    My mother was 5 years old when this tragedy took place. She has told me many stories about the tragedy and the actions that my grandparents took to save others and themselves. I found this story to be very intriguing and thought provocative.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2003

    Bill Minutaglio's Portrait of Hell in the First Person.

    Bill Minutaglio has written a portrait of what may only be described as 'hell in the first person.' I was in Danforth Elementary School in Texas City, Texas, at 9:12 AM on April 16, 1947, when the jaws of hell yawned opened and tried to consume all of us. In the event hell only extinguished some 800 hundred of us. All of those who survived that day have personal memories. Bill was kind enough to use some of mine as well as the memories of my father, mother and brother in his history of this event in my home town. He has painted realistic pictures of my parents, our friends and family and a brave high school student named Forrest Walker, Jr. who plucked a very freighten 1st grader out of the stampede of children from Danforth Elementary School that morning. I was that 1st grader and Forrest has been a personal hero of mine over the 56 years since that morning. I will never forget the conversation that morning between Forrest and my father, Curtis Trahan, after Forrest had safely delivered me to my father's place of business. As we parted, Dad's words to Forrest were to the effect that Forrest should go find his parents. Forrest found his mother although he was not able to find his father. Ultimately, Forrest found Mr. Walker's body on the floor of the high school gymnasium, converted into a make-shift morgue. Bill Minutaglio has written very loving protraits of Mayor Curtis Trahan, who is my father, Father William Roach, the local Catholic pastor who did not survive the event, Forrest Walker, the high school student, and many of the other heros who that morning and over the ensuing days, weeks, months and years, discovered just how very brave they really were. Bill Minutaglio's book fascinates me as: a son of two of the central figures, Curtis and Edna Trahan; a beneficiary of the courage and compassion of another, Forrest Walker; and, as a survivor of this disaster. I hope readers of Bill Minutaglio's book will understand and appreciate the difference between how our nation responded to the plight of Texas City, Texas, its casualties and its survivors in 1947 and how our nation has responded to the City of New York, its casualties and its survivors of the Twin Towers disaster of September 11, 2001. Bill Minutaglio has pointed out that, in many ways, Texas City was the scale model or dress rehersal for the nation's response to the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. In the beginning, the reader may find Bill Minutaglio's 'newspaper' format to be unusual. If the reader will think of each article as an indepth 'feature article' on that particular facet of the total story, it will make the 'read' much more meaningful. Bill's treatment has done for this reader what no other treatment of the Texas City disaster has been able to achieve: the characters and events are alive and vivid within the book itself. I hope that the readers will enjoy this book as recent history and can place its story within the context of the events of our more recent history: the outrages at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the Twin Towers in New York City.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2003

    First Grade Truama

    I was in first grade at Danforth Elementary School on April 16, 1947 when the City on Fire began. This event dominated my entire childhood and since September 11, 2001 has haunted my memory again. I am still trying to sort out the memories and this book has been very enlightening and helpful. My thanks to Bill Minutaglio for such a well written and easy to read book that tells the story of the good people of Texas City that should never be forgotten. I am especially grateful for his portral of Mayor Trahan who, if this disaster happened today, would have gotten as much press as Mayor Juiliano. That day people thought the world was coming to an end. It's difficult to know what are my own memories and what I heard others say as a child. But no one could have told me about the interior wall of my classroom falling over the rows of desks nor could they have put in my mind the utter chaos on the school playground. Miracle of miracles, my two brothers and I found each other in the sea of crying children...and simply walked home. Like the people in Bill Minutaglio's book, we just did what we had to do. We walked down sixth street past Michael's Jewelry store and my brother saw a diamond ring on the sidewalk. He told my mother later he started to pick it up and bring it to her but didn't. I was always told that when I got home I was covered in blood but did not have a scratch on me. I wonder whose blood it was. Was some other child critically injured that was near me? Bill Minutaglio's book makes it clear that no one will ever know exactly how many people were killed or injured that day. These days for such an event we would immediately have counselors available to traumaized individuals. We had none such then. The people of Texas City just went on with their lives. This book should be required reading for students of Texas History so that Texas City will not be 'the forgotten disaster'.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2003

    Ghosts of the Past Revisited

    Having been born and raised in Texas City, this book captured my interest. Within the pages, I found names of people I knew, even though I wasn't born until 3 years later. Mr. Galbreath was probably my 8th grade American History teacher who taught me to love history. Mr. Louis Shannon, the bicycle repairman, lived next door to my grandparents and I often visited him in his shop with my father. We shopped at the Nuchels grocery store and I remember where Agee's was for many years as well as the old City Hall and the clinics and hospitals. Growing up and going to my doctor, I remember seeing photographs of the disaster all over his waiting room walls. Today, I visited Texas City and found my doctor's donated train sets upstairs in the city's museum. My father, Otto Welch, was 24 at the time and the day he felt the earth shake, he grabbed my baby cousin, Elaine, from her bed right before the wall of my grandmother's house fell onto the baby bed. He's her hero as well as mine. 'City on Fire' is full of the history of a mistreated city, but one that I am proud to call my hometown. Thank you Bill Minutaglio for a book of history, well written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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