Texas City Disaster
On April 16th, 1947, Caroline Valenta, 22-year-old photographer for the Houston Post, captured this shocking image of the aftermath of the explosion of the SS Grandcamp in Texas City. Workers had been in the process of loading the vessel with chemical fertilizer bound for France when a fire started on board. Everyone was ordered off the ship, and the fire began to draw a crowd of spectators along the docks. At 9:15AM the ship exploded. [See detailed graphic here].
Valenta was at home in Houston’s east side, eating breakfast when she got a call from Bill Nottingham, chief photographer at the Post. There’s been a explosion at Texas City, Nottingham told her. She was told to get out there and photograph it. Valenta grabbed her Speed Graphic, some film holders and set out toward Texas City. Traffic out there was heavy, and road were all blocked by Houston police. Some ambulance drivers and hearse drivers told her, “Don’t go that way that’s where it’s the worst,” and that’s where she went, of course.
There, bodies were everywhere. Some cut in half, some horribly mangled. Many had nothing but their shoes on because their clothes had been burned off in the explosion and fire. Killing 570 people, injuring 3,000, and leveling buildings nearly a mile away, the disaster triggered the first ever class action lawsuit against the United States government. Using some advice given by legendary Life magazine photographer Dmitri Kessel, Valenta looked for the big picture; she walked a half mile into the center of the disaster area. Oil, tar, chemicals, downed cables, and human debris covered the ground. She walked back to an area where eight bodies lay beneath an overturned boxcar. In the background stood the twisted steel wreckage of a building, smoke almost blotting out the sky. And there she took the above a foreground-background shot.
Graphic in nature, it made the front page of the Post and has been considered a notable image in American photojournalism. And the world saw the destruction at Texas City.