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William Rooney recalls how the anchor of a French freighter ended up 6 miles away from Galveston Bay in Texas, where the ship was in port.
He also remembers when a high school gymnasium in the town of Texas City, Texas, was converted into a morgue for hundreds of dead.
Mr. Rooney, now 79, remembers many events like these, having written the insurance claim for what was the worst industrial disaster of its time-and one that today ranks seventh among the 20 deadliest fires and explosions in U.S. history.
April 16, 1997, marked the 50th anniversary of the Texas City disaster, which occurred when the S.S. Grandcamp exploded at a Monsanto Chemical Co. pier.
The blast's impact blew two small planes out of the sky, shattered windows up to 25 miles away, and killed 576 people in Texas City, whose population at the time was about 16,000. The city now has about 41,000 residents.
The Grandcamp, with its 2,300-ton cargo of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, was ignited by what investigators determined to be a discarded cigarette. The ship was destroyed, and the resulting fire set off a series of subsequent explosions and fires that burned for a week.
Ammonium nitrate is the same substance used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
A second freighter, also docked at a Monsanto pier and holding 961 tons of ammonium nitrite, exploded early the next morning as efforts were in progress to tow the burning ship away from the fires on land.
The Monsanto plant alone suffered $22 million in damage, and $19.6 million of that loss was recovered from its insurers, Mr. Rooney said.
Edgar Queeny, Monsanto's chairman at the time, "directly credited the insurance claim with getting that money," said Mr. Rooney, who has one of the few known copies of the Monsanto claim, complete with copies of the property insurance policies issued for the facility by The Home Insurance Co., now in runoff.
The Home wrote $14 million of property coverage and $5 million of use and occupancy coverage for the Texas City plant, while underwriters at Lloyd's wrote varying amounts of excess coverage.
The first page after the claim's cover page reads, "Monsanto Chemical Company, the greatest sufferer in the Texas City Disaster of April 16, 1947, presents to the Home Insurance Co., through the Oil Insurance Assn., and to Underwriters at Lloyd's, its claim for the largest single risk loss in the history of insurance."
In addition to the destruction of its facility, the disaster claimed 227 Monsanto employees and contractors.
"The plant manager was very badly injured in the explosion, and others supporting him were killed. There was a lot of qualified manpower that was lost," Mr. Rooney, who now resides in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Ill., said in an interview.
To compound the difficulties, there was a nationwide telephone strike in progress, and there were no long-distance lines until the phone company set up emergency lines between Texas City and Monsanto's corporate headquarters in St. Louis.
A few days after the disaster, Mr. Queeny assigned Mr. Rooney and a colleague, Wilbur Grosse, both based in St. Louis, to write the insurance claim for the Texas City plant. Mr. Grosse is deceased.
But Messrs. Grosse and Rooney were neither risk managers nor adjusters. Rather, they were on the company's in-house advertising staff.
"It was at the end of the war, and at that time, the federal government was renegotiating all the contracts that they had made with these people," recalled Mr. Rooney, referring to manufacturing companies that had agreed to operate on a non-profit basis to aid the U.S. war effort.
Monsanto's Texas City plant was one such manufacturing facility. It manufactured styrene, a chemical needed in the production of synthesized rubber. The war had made rubber more valuable but less available. By 1944, Monsanto was producing a quarter of the styrene essential to the Allied rubber supply.
The accident occurred, in fact, just days before an open house was scheduled to attract potential clients and begin the facility's post-war conversion to a for-profit enterprise.
Mr. Queeny's selection of the two advertising staffers was made in the same spirit of non-profit patriotism, explained Mr. Rooney. The Monsanto chairman thought using non-insurance personnel to write the claim would keep the process more objective.
"Edgar Queeny said this was going to be a totally honest claim," said Mr. Rooney, who noted that with some claims, "you'll get companies that ask for 10 times more than they expect they'll get. But (Mr. Queeny) wanted to have a totally honest presentation of the claim."
Monsanto did retain a man with an insurance background to serve as a consultant to the advertisers-turned-adjusters, Mr. Rooney said.
"We were now faced with the question of what was the format (of the claim) going to be? How was it going to look?" explained Mr. Rooney. "At that time, John Hersey had published the book 'Hiroshima.' It was published in its entirety in The New Yorker.*.*.I walked around reading this, and I saw in there the logic of the narrative," explains Mr. Rooney.
From this, Mr. Rooney began combining Mr. Hersey's narrative style with ideas from his own experience in World War II.
As an intelligence officer in the headquarters of the U.S. Army's XX Bomber Command, which flew B-29s, Mr. Rooney's task was to write combat mission reports. This function included drawing maps and diagramming information brought back from the combat missions, as well as extensive interpretation of aerial photographs.
"Every time the planes went out on a mission, I'd interrogate the crews, ask where the bombs were dropped, the location of the target, anti-aircraft, extent of the damage, prestrike and poststrike photographs.*.*.*.All of this was the format of a combat mission report."
"This," says Mr. Rooney, lifting the edges of the nearly one-inch thick Monsanto claim report, "is what a combat mission report looked like. Same color cover and everything."
The thick, yellowing pages of the 50-year-old claim are bound by a black string tied in a bow. The pages are printed on one side, filled with black and white before-and-after photography, as well as complete descriptions of the disaster itself, of the company's background and success since the plant's opening in March 1943, and of the safety features the plant had before the explosion. The claim report also includes detailed calculations of damages prepared by consultant Stone & Webster Corp. on repair and replacement costs, sales losses and property losses.
Two black-and-white aerial photographs of the plant fold out side by side at the front of the report. One on the left shows a sprawling industrial complex, with a tall cement smokestack, numerous office and production buildings, and docking areas. The one on the right shows mangled masses of steel or empty space where buildings, including the smoke stack, once stood, and debris coats the previously well-kept grounds (see photos, page 3).
Aside from Monsanto's devastation, Texas City itself was in ruins. Donations to relief funds allowed the town to rebound faster than expected, but insurers faced about 4,000 individual property loss claims, of which nearly $4 million was recovered under fire insurance policies that had extended coverage endorsements for wind, explosion and smoke damage, said Hugh Stephens, associate dean of social sciences at the University of Houston.
"Most claims were paid under this clause people had in their insurance policies," said Mr. Stephens, whose book, "The Texas City Disaster, 1947," was published in April. "The insurance companies mounted an extensive program to handle policyholder claims, even including the National Board of Underwriters."
Those in the Gulf city who purchased the coverage endorsement did so with the threat of hurricanes in mind, said Mr. Stephens. After the disaster, though, such broad property insurance was more difficult to obtain, he said.
Claims like the comprehensive report that forms the basis for Monsanto's Texas City claim do not really exist anymore, said Tom Upman, vp, property division in the corporate claims department of CNA Insurance Cos. in Chicago. Even being printed on paper is a rarity today, and only then if they are printed from a computer file. Facts, numbers and underwriting language have replaced narratives and explanations, he said.
One aspect of the claims process that hasn't changed much in the intervening decades, though, is the reliance on photography.
"Photography plays a large role. It's always nice to have a before-the-fact (picture) of what was there and how it was configured," Mr. Upman said. He said still photography and videotaping are used extensively to help establish the scope of the damage and to put a dollar amount on the loss.
Mr. Upman said new coverages and technological advancements have changed claims handling in the 50 years since the Texas City disaster. Also, there is much more exposure in areas that previously were thinly populated.
"Before, coverages were pretty basic, and they have expanded dramatically over the past 50 years," he said. "A large percentage of us lives within a relatively close distance to coastlines. An amazing population lives in areas vulnerable to earthquakes."
Mr. Upman said his experience with Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was an eye-opener for him as well as others in insurance.
"We thought we knew where our book of business was, but we found out we really didn't," he said. "We now know better how to preplan as a hurricane is approaching."
The insurance industry has taken "lessons learned and applied them toward making improvements to their plans," said Mr. Upman. "It's amazing how much more professionally we can respond to an event now than we could 30 years ago."
Mr. Upman explained that insurance companies have traditionally dealt with catastrophes reactively, setting up temporary claim offices in affected areas after a disaster's occurrence. But insurers are now looking into better ways to prepare for disasters.
While the Monsanto claim report lists extensively all the safety features and precautions taken when the plant was built four years earlier, neither Monsanto nor Texas City was prepared for the explosion.
Efforts to get comment from Monsanto were unsuccessful.
The long-term good that came to Texas City from the disaster was better emergency planning and a higher level of awareness among its citizens of the possibility of catastrophes.
Through a program called Community Awareness Response in Emergencies, sirens placed around Texas City sound off to alert its citizens of danger. Also formed was a mutual aid pact among local industries to assist one another in emergencies.
"The Industrial Mutual Aid System was formed in 1948, and it still exists," said Mr. Stephens, the University of Houston professor.
One aspect of claims administration that remains the same as 50 years ago is the need to place the liability for accidents on someone, even if it means going to court.
Monsanto sued the U.S. government, claiming the government was responsible for the explosion. Mr. Rooney explained this was because the ammonium nitrate fertilizer being loaded onto the Grandcamp was intended to be foreign relief to France from the United States.
"The fertilizer was coming from a U.S. munitions plant in El Dorado, Ark. It was being shipped as a foreign aid measure (after the war)," said Mr. Rooney.
According to the Mr. Stephens, a federal trial court judge found the government liable for the accident. But, he continued, the ruling was reversed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reversal.
While the U.S. courts denied Monsanto's claim, Congress passed a compensation act in 1955 that appropriated $17 million to pay individual claims from the Texas City disaster. Most of the claims were in compensation for wrongful death, said Mr. Stephens.
Mr. Rooney hopes to donate his rare copy of the Monsanto claim to an archive society.