Nixon Thanks Volunteers After San Clemente Alarm
Bells, Buffs and Blazes
The incident attracted little notice on television or in the newspapers, but the volunteer fire fighters of San Clemente, Calif., won’t soon forget the visit to their station by President Nixon.
The President stopped at the station to thank Chief Merton Hackett and his men for answering an alarm at 11:30 one night at the Western White House. Nixon had just arrived there when a smoldering fire was discovered in the partitions of the old house.
Hackett told us the President was particularly interested in how the department fought fires, the type of equipment used, and how the volunteers handled rescue problems, particularly along the ocean front. The President was surprised to learn that of the 21 volunteer members of the department, about half have 20 years or more of service.
Not long ago, the American Legion Magazine carried an article by this writer on the Texas City explosions of April 1947 that killed 561 persons. Among those killed were Chief Henry J. Baumgartner and 26 fire fighters. They were all volunteer members of the Texas City Fire Department. They died when the freighter Grandcamp blew up while they were battling a fire in fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate in No. 4 hold.
The day was one of many tragic ironies. The fire was discovered around 8:10 a.m., but the alarm was not turned in until 8:33. During this time, Baumgartner was at work at his desk a scant few yards away in the office of the Texas City Terminal Railway Company. Nobody bothered to tell him about the fire, although a noticeable cloud of smoke was spiraling from the Grandcamp.
When the city’s fire siren was finally triggered, volunteers hurried to the docks. Baumgartner’s 12-year-old son, Harold, who was on half-day school sessions, saw the plume of darkening smoke. Harold, as might be expected, was a fire buff who liked to watch his dad fight blazes. Besides, he also knew that the department had just bought an engine which had yet to get its hose wet in action. Harold began pedaling his bicycle toward the smoke.
At 9:12 a.m., the Grandcamp blew up and everything and everybody around it vanished. The blasts—survivors said there were at least two—were heard and felt for 150 miles.
All four of Texas City’s fire engines were obliterated, including the new pumper, which whanged down, a twisted wad, onto a 30-ton barge which had been lifted by tidal wave in the basin and thrown 150 feet beyond the shore line.
The Grandcamp boomed as young Harold Baumgartner was pedaling toward the docks.
“I was blown about 20 feet off my bicycle,” he said later. “I got up and started running. The second time it exploded, I was again blown about 20 feet. I ran all the way home as fast as I could. I knew my Dad was in the middle of it all. I will never go to see a fire again.”
Fire departments from nearby Galveston and cities for miles around hurried to Texas City to fight the flames, which destroyed warehouses, bulk oil tank farms, and other industrial property. The property loss exceeded $50 million. And America’s volunteer fire fighters can look upon that day as the darkest in their colorful and sometimes violent history.