Sitting on a Keg of Dynamite: Father Bill, Texas City, and a Disaster Foretold
On April 16, 1947, the French vessel SS Grandcamp, carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer, exploded in the port of Texas City, just north of Galveston, Texas. Nearly 600 people died instantly and property damage reached catastrophic proportions. The Texas City disaster remains, to date, the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. Among those killed was William Roach, a Roman Catholic priest known affectionately as Father Bill. Sitting on a Keg of Dynamite, by historian John Neal Phillips, tells the remarkable story of Father Bill’s life and premature death against the backdrop of the rapid growth—and near destruction—of an American industrial city.
Through extensive archival research and oral interviews, Phillips pieces together previously unknown details of Father Bill’s story to present a well-rounded portrait of the man who is today revered as a hero. Born in Philadelphia, Roach attended seminary in Arkansas before he went on to serve as parish priest for St. Mary of the Miraculous Medal in Texas City. Restless, energetic, and beloved for his humor, tolerance, and empathy, Father Bill was an outspoken advocate for poor and working-class citizens, fair wages, and workplace safety.
One evening, as Phillips vividly recounts, Roach sat on the church steps, looking out at the strange orange-yellow light created by hydrocarbon gas flares emerging from nearby oil refineries. “I feel like I’m sitting on a keg of dynamite,” he told parishioners who were passing by. His premonition proved prophetic. When a fire erupted onboard the Grandcamp, Father Bill hurried to the docks to lend assistance. It was then that the ship detonated.
There is still much to be learned from the Texas City disaster—and from the legacy of Father Bill, an early crusader for social justice in America. Descendants of the disaster victims received financial reparations, and yet, as Phillips cautions, safety and environmental regulations barely exist in Texas today, particularly when it comes to the petrochemical industry. Sitting on a Keg of Dynamite serves as a cautionary tale for Texans—and all Americans—as environmental accidents continue to threaten our safety.
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