Tianjin’s Big Bang


Videos of the August 13 explosion at Tianjin are terrifying and amazing.  Based on the seismic record, the second explosion was equivalent to the detonation of 21 tons of TNT.

It’s not difficult to understand why Xi Jinping might have, as Willie Lam alleges, entertained the notion that this was some sort of sabotage strike against his rule.

Xi Dada can probably “strike” the USAF off his list.

Remarkably, the argument against a military attack is that the explosion was just too darn big. It would have taken two dozen JDAMs or 50 cruise missiles to generate that kind of blast.  It would take two MOABs dropped from a lumbering C-130 turboprop.  So conspiracy theorists had to scramble to attribute the catastrophe to an exotic space-based or nuke-type attack.

Long story short, something on the ground blew up.

But what’s really amazing is that the titanic blast isn’t even that titanic by industrial accident standards.

In fact, it doesn’t even make Wikipedia’s Top Ten largest man-made explosions.

The tragedy—and initial reports that perhaps firemen had sprayed water on calcium carbide, thereby generating acetylene, which might have detonated stores of ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer as well as the raw material for Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bomb–immediately put me in mind of the Texas City disaster of 1947.


Texas City explosion, 1947.

In Texas City, a freighter loaded with ammonium nitrate, the SS Grandcamp, caught fire.  Take it away,Wikipedia!

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, attempts to extinguish the fire or bring it under control failed as a red glow returned after each effort to douse the fire.

Shortly before 9:00 a.m., the captain ordered his men to steam the hold, a firefighting method where steam is piped in to put out fires, in the hope of preserving the cargo. This action was unlikely to have been effective as ammonium nitrate produces its own oxygen, thereby neutralizing the extinguishing properties of the steam. The steam may have even contributed to the fire by converting the ammonium nitrate to nitrous oxide, while augmenting the already intense heat in the ship’s hold.

At 9:12 a.m., the ammonium nitrate reached an explosive threshold from the combination of heat and pressure; the vessel then detonated, causing great destruction and damage throughout the port. The tremendous blast sent a 15-foot (4.5 m) wave that was detectable nearly 100 miles (160 km) off the Texas shoreline. The blast leveled nearly 1,000 buildings on land. The Grandcamp explosion destroyed the Monsanto Chemical Company plant and resulted in ignition of refineries and chemical tanks on the waterfront. Falling bales of burning twine from the ship’s cargo added to the damage while the Grandcamp’s anchor was hurled across the city. Two sightseeing airplanes flying nearby had their wings shorn off, forcing them out of the sky. 10 miles (16 km) away, people in Galveston were forced to their knees. People felt the shock 250 miles (400 km) away in Louisiana. The explosion blew almost 6,350 short tons (5,760 metric tons) of the ship’s steel into the air, some at supersonic speed. Official casualty estimates came to a total of 567, including all the crewmen who remained on board the Grandcamp. All but one member of the 29-man Texas City volunteer fire department were killed in the initial explosion on the docks while fighting the shipboard fire, and with the fires raging throughout Texas City, first responders from other areas were initially unable to reach the site of the disaster.

The energy released during the Grandcamp explosion is estimated at around 3 KT of TNT.

Let me write that out.  3000 tons of TNT.

The Tianjin explosion.  21 tons of TNT.

Thank goodness the Tianjin blast was a relative piker.

Here’s an interesting sidebar for legal eagles, by the way.

Ammonium nitrate, when handled properly, is a stable, high-energy source of explosive chemical energy and, in fact, has superseded TNT as a primary raw material for conventional explosives.  The ammonium nitrate fertilizer on the SS Grandcamp was destined for Europe as part of a postwar aid program, and had been produced in ordnance factories repurposed at the order of the federal government.  It appeared that the federal government was liable, not only in a general “it was the government’s fertilizer” kind of way, but also because of specific episodes of negligence.

Therefore, survivors and families of victims filed suit against the government under the FTCA, the Federal Tort Claims Act.  This Act was designed to compensate the general public for damages inflicted by the government like, you know, flying a bomber into the Empire State Building, which happened in 1943 and was the impetus for getting the FTCA enacted.

However, the US government apparently had little appetite for compensating thousands of plaintiffs for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.  At the end of a very long day (actually three years) the Supreme Court ruled that the US government was entitled to “discretion” a.k.a. not consider itself bound by ordinary ideas, practices, and caution when pursuing policies pertaining to “the national interest”.

The fertilizer was meant to succor European farmers and wean them from potentially Communist sympathies, ergo national interest/discretion.

Congress did exercise its legislative discretion to provide about $17 million to the victims and President Eisenhower signed the bill.

The entire affair is described in Bill Minutaglio’s 2003 book, City on Fire: The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Battle

I find this noteworthy because the US government uses the same rationale to deny any executive branch legal liability for “downwinders” (residents of Nevada and Utah claiming illness and damages as result of the US nuclear testing program) and stricken nuclear workers, while the Congress has stepped up to legislate relief.

I touched on this issue in my CounterPunch piece on the radiation contamination of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan during the Fukushima crisis.  Only three bucks!  A bargain!

By the way, after a suspiciously long layover at a dockyard in Washington State (rumored to involve an epic decontamination effort) and a complex crew switch between three aircraft carriers (so that unhappy crew can be switched to another boat?) the Ronald Reagan is sailing for Japan to set up shop at Yokosuka (where the Abe government, now discretely discharging radioactive water into Fukushima Bay, will no doubt be happy to declare the vessel “clean as a whistle”).

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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