TCS Daily

Pandora's Cornucopia

By Russell Seitz - July 2, 2003 12:00 AM

It was warm work, but the stevedores of Texas City were glad to be loading the good ship Grandcamp. The Marshall Plan was ploughsharing ammonium nitrate once bound for bomb casings into fertilizer for the fields of France.

Hungry Europe needed all the help it could get, but on the morning of April 16, 1947, the promise of a bumper harvest turned into Pandora's cornucopia. Some small arms ammunition elsewhere in the Grandcamp's hold popped off, triggering a kiloton explosion so ferocious that survivors thought the Russians had dropped an atom bomb on the harbor. The shock wave knocked two aircraft out of the sky, and the Grandcamp's massive anchor crashed into an oil refinery two miles away.

Two weeks ago, a rust bucket from the Black Sea, registered in the Marshall Islands, cruised into Greek waters under the Comoro flag of convenience. The Baltic Sky's motley crew of Azeri's and Ukrainians may have been on an innocent, if under-documented delivery run from Tunisia to the Sudan, but they carried the makings of quite a turkey shoot. Aboard were over a million pounds of ammonium nitrate mining explosives, and an ample supply of detonating cord and blasting caps, all addressed to a non-existent firm doing business out of a post office box in Khartoum.

If you are disconcerted by the idea of a 100-blockbuster time bomb sailing to Byzantium, or into a marina near you, please stop here. Or at least sit down and get out your nitroglycerine tablets. Every day, tens of kilotons of explosives glide through the cities along America's lazy rivers and busy canals, because 9/11 did not change the price of sustaining America as an agricultural superpower -- it takes megatons of ammonium nitrate a year. It is the mother of all dual use materials, equally good for fertilizing lawns or soy beans or blasting to smithereens anything civil or military.

Scarcely a decade passes without a ship or barge load going off by misadventure, rather than malice, and deconstructing some unfortunate seaport or river city. It's happened in the dead of peacetime as well as before, during and after wars. And it's likely to continue for as long as ammonium nitrate's zero-cost ingredients -- air and water -- make it so tragically cheap. Ten cents a pound is all the market will bear.

So strong was the resonance of decades of disaster movies and the devastation of the WTC that the burning towers have crowded the older iconography of urban obliteration out of the popular imagination. Who cares why a shallow crater beside the Rhine no longer contains a town called Oppau, or some old seaports are oddly devoid of Victorian architecture? Weapons-free mass destruction leaves few survivors to testify to what malice has at its disposal. The so-far perfect safety record of such hazardous commodities as LNG presents a problem -- since only experience can teach reality, unrealized hazards are often disregarded as though they were imaginary.

The seizure of the 680-ton cargo of explosives, like the interdiction of a major heroin shipment, testifies to the existence of international vigilance, but not its meaningful success. When a jet fuel tanker the size of a 727 goes off screen, one ought to worry about more than its possible rendezvous with a tall building. The bucks from selling a commercial jet would fetch an awful lot of bang. With ammonium nitrate at $200 a ton, ten kilotons costs two million dollars. Right now, 50 kilograms of 50 dollar bills can buy the equivalent of the Hiroshima bomb, few questions asked, with cash left over for its convoy.

But come on -- a conventional bomb as big as Hiroshima? A supertanker loaded with a half-megaton of ANFO plowing through the Gulf towards Houston seems too corny for a techno-thriller , as implausible as an instant replay of the Grandcamp explosion.

What remained of Texas City was rudely reawakened at 1:10 AM on April 17, 1947. Sixteen hours after the first, another kiloton of ammonium nitrate had detonated across the harbor aboard the all too well named High Flyer. Not even Hollywood imagined Qusai Hussein dropping in on the National Bank of Iraq, and driving off into the sunrise with ten tons of hundred dollar bills worth 454,000 times their weight in high explosive.

But he did, just as one twentieth of a Hiroshima escaped from sunny Gabes into NATO waters. It's quite enough to ruin your entire day even if you're not in the counterterrorism business. Have a safe and sane Fourth of July.

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