April 16, 1947, was a bad day in Texas City, a port in Galveston Bay on the gulf coast of Texas. Longshoremen were loading a ship, the SS Grandcamp, with cargo that included tobacco, peanuts, government-owned ammunition and ammonium nitrate. The latter was a chemical that in World War II had been used as an explosive, but subsequently was put to use as a fertilizer [sources: History.com, Moore Library].
At 9:12 a.m. that day, the ammonium nitrate aboard the ship suddenly detonated. Fireballs streaked across the sky and could be seen for miles around, as red-hot melted pieces of the ship were blasted out of the pier. The explosion was so intense that it caused a 15-foot-high (4.6-meter-high) tidal wave that flooded the area and shattered windows in Houston, 40 miles (64 kilometers) away. The explosion also destroyed a Monsanto chemical plant a few hundred feet from the ship. In all, 581 people were killed and 3,500 injured. The accident was attributed to a lit cigarette [sources: History.com, Moore Library].
But the Texas City blast, one of the worst industrial disasters ever, didn't get the attention it deserved. That's because the day before, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson became the first player to break baseball's color barrier [source: Heyman].