CLOSE
Original image
DowntownRoseburg.org

7 Other Ammonium Nitrate Disasters

Original image
DowntownRoseburg.org

As horrific as last week’s fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, was, it’s (sadly) not without precedent. Ammonium nitrate, the explosive compound that caused the catastrophe, is often used in fertilizer because of its high nitrogen content. It’s also super soil-soluble, so it’s extremely effective at seeping down to the roots of plants. The other reason it’s typically mass-produced is for munitions, especially during wars. Because the stuff is so volatile, it’s been the source of more than a few tragedies over the years.

1. The Roseburg Blast, 1959

Truck driver George Rutherford parked his truck in front of the Garretsen Building Supply Company in downtown Roseburg, Oregon, on the night of August 6, 1959. He then retreated to the nearby Umpqua Hotel to get some rest before his morning delivery. The delivery never happened, because sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., the Garretsen Building Supply Company caught on fire. Shortly thereafter, the fire ignited the contents of Rutherford’s truck—two tons of dynamite and 4.5 tons of ammonium nitrate. All of the buildings in an eight-block radius were totally destroyed (pictured above) and 14 people died. Rutherford survived.

2. Morgan Depot Explosion, 1918

As the largest producer of ammunition during WWI, the T.A. Gillespie Shell Loading Plant in Sayreville, N.J., produced 32,000 shells a day. The plant exploded on October 4, 1918, scattering debris—including thousands of shells—over a 1.25-mile radius from the plant. At least 100 people were killed in the fires and explosions that raged on for three days afterward. As recently as 2007, an unexploded shell was found in a schoolyard during an excavation for a new playground.

A local historian believes the explosion was likely caused by worker error, but for nearly 100 years, townspeople have wondered if the Germans somehow found a way to sabotage the plant.

3. The Oppau Explosion, 1921

A German silo storing 4500 tons of fertilizer, a mix of ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate, was at the heart of this 1921 catastrophe that leveled hundreds of houses, killed 561 people, and devastated a small town.

The combination of the two compounds proved to be disastrous. Together, they formed a plaster-like substance that workers had to chip apart with pickaxes, or blast apart with blasting powder. Though both sound like a terrible idea, workers had successfully used the blasting powder more than 16,000 times without incident at this particular location. However, this exact technique is what caused the explosion of two ammonium nitrate-loaded rail cars in Germany just two months earlier.

Despite the size of this tragedy, it could have been worse - only 450 of the 4,500 tons of fertilizer actually detonated.

4. The Great Explosion, 1916

In April 1916, some empty sacks caught fire at a building in Uplees, about 60 miles southeast of London. While this would normally be a rather uneventful thing, the sacks happened to be located at the Explosives Loading Company, a factory that filled bombs and shells. The fire spread and ignited 15 tons of TNT and 150 tons of ammonium nitrate, killing 116, including the entire fire brigade. The victims were buried in a mass grave.

5. Nixon Nitration Works Disaster, 1924

The Nixon Nitration Works in Raritan Township, known these days as Edison, N.J., produced nitrocellulose, a flammable plastic that was used to make film and x-rays, among other things. The Nitration Works leased one of their buildings to the Ammonite Company, which used it to take apart artillery shells so their contents could be reused as fertilizer. That meant that more than 1 million gallons of ammonium nitrate was being stored about 300 feet away from the highly flammable nitrocellulose.

We still don’t know exactly what caused the explosion, even after an inquiry by the U.S. Secretary of War. Ammonite blamed Nixon and Nixon blamed Ammonite. Whatever happened, the resulting blast rattled windows in Staten Island, nearly 20 miles away. Eighteen people were killed, two were reported missing, and 100 were injured.

6. The Texas City Disaster, 1947

Nearly 600 people were killed and thousands were injured when a freighter being loaded with 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Texas City on April 16, 1947. The 1.5-ton anchor of the ship was found two miles away. The first explosion was so powerful that it registered as an earthquake in Denver, 900 miles away.

To make matters worse, the first blast made a nearby Monsanto chemical storage facility explode as well, killing 234 of the 574 workers. You can see the explosion at about 2:20 in the video below.

7. The Ryongchon Disaster, 2004

Ryongchŏn, a North Korean town about 12 miles from China, was the site of a massive explosion in April 2004. At least one train carrying mining explosives was involved in the accident, but—surprise—North Korea was incredibly secretive about what happened, so we don’t know much else. The country actually cut their phone lines to the rest of the world almost immediately after the incident. Surprisingly, though, North Korea allowed the Red Cross to come in and help with disaster relief. According to the Red Cross, 160 people were killed, 1850 buildings were destroyed, and another 6350 were damaged.

Because Kim Jong-il had passed through the same train station just a few hours prior to the explosion, some speculated that it had been a failed assassination attempt. No evidence was ever found to support this, but the supreme leader may have actually been the indirect cause of the tragedy: one theory is that two trains collided because the train timetable changes due to Kim Jong-il’s visit weren’t communicated to all parties.

Original image
Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)
arrow
History
When Lexicographer Samuel Johnson Became a Ghostbuster
Original image
Getty Images (Johnson) / iStock (ghosts)

Dr. Samuel Johnson is today best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which remained the foremost authority on the English language until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared more than a century later. The dictionary took Johnson nine years to complete, for which he was paid the princely sum of 1500 guineas—equivalent to $300,000 (or £210,000) today. Although it wasn’t quite the commercial success its publishers hoped it would be, it allowed Johnson the freedom to explore his own interests and endeavors: He spent several years editing and annotating his own editions of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and traveled extensively around Britain with his friend (and eventual biographer) James Boswell—and, in 1762, helped to investigate a haunted house.

Johnson—who was born on this day in 1709 and is the subject of today's Google Doodle—had a lifelong interest in the paranormal, once commenting that he thought it was “wonderful” that it was still “undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.” According to Boswell, however, he was more of a skeptic than an out-and-out believer, and refused to accept anything without seeing the evidence for himself. So when the news broke of an apparently haunted house just a few streets away from his own home in central London, Johnson jumped at the chance to perhaps see a ghost with his own eyes.

The haunting began in the early 1760s, when a young couple, William and Fanny Kent, began renting a room from a local landlord, Richard (or William—sources disagree, but for clarity, we'll use Richard) Parsons, at 25 Cock Lane in Smithfield, London. Soon after the Kents moved in, Richard’s daughter, Betty, began to hear strange knocking and scratching sounds all around the house, and eventually claimed to have seen a ghost in her bedroom.

Richard soon discovered that William was a widower and that Fanny was in fact his deceased wife's sister; under canon law, the pair couldn't be married, and Richard became convinced that the ghost must be that of William's deceased first wife, Elizabeth, blaming William’s presence in the house for all of the strange occurrences. He promptly evicted the Kents and the noises soon subsided—but when Fanny also died just a few weeks later, they immediately resumed and again seemed to center around Betty. In desperation, a series of séances were held at the Cock Lane house, and finally Fanny’s ghost supposedly confirmed her presence by knocking on the table. When questioned, Fanny claimed that William had killed her by poisoning her food with arsenic—an accusation William understandably denied.

By now, news of the Cock Lane Ghost had spread all across the city, and when the story broke in the press, dozens of curious Londoners began turning up at the house, queuing for hours outside in the street hoping to see any sign of supernatural activity. According to some accounts, Parsons even charged visitors to come in and “talk” to the ghost, who would communicate with knocks and other disembodied noises.

But with the suspicion of murder now in the air, the Cock Lane haunting changed from a local curiosity into a full-blown criminal investigation. A committee was formed to examine the case, and Johnson was brought in to record their findings and investigate the case for himself.

On February 1, 1762, one final séance was held with all members of the committee—Johnson included—in attendance. He recorded that:

About 10 at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl [Betty] supposed to be disturbed by a spirit had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies. They sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went down stairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud … While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl’s chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches. When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back.

But the committee were suspicious. Betty was asked to hold out her hands in front of her, in sight of everyone in the room:

From that time—though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency—no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited.

Johnson ultimately concluded that it was “the opinion of the whole assembly that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.” And he was right.

As the investigation continued, it was eventually discovered that Richard Parsons had earlier borrowed a considerable amount of money from William Kent that he had no means (nor apparently any intention) of repaying. The two men had a falling out, and Parsons set about elaborately framing Kent for both Fanny and Elizabeth's deaths. The ghostly scratching and knocking noises had all been Betty’s work; she hidden a small wooden board into the hem of her clothing with which to tap or scratch on the walls or furniture when prompted.

The Parsons—along with a servant and a preacher, who were also in on the scam—were all prosecuted, and Richard was sentenced to two years in prison.

Although the Cock Lane haunting turned out to be a hoax, Johnson remained open minded about the supernatural. “If a form should appear,” he later told Boswell, “and a voice tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact, with all its circumstances, should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case, be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me.”

Original image
The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
arrow
geography
The Mountains of Kong: The Majestic West African Range That Never Existed
Original image
The King of Kong © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

If you look closely at a 19th century map of Africa, you’ll notice one major way that it differs from contemporary maps, one that has nothing to do with changing political or cartographical styles. More likely than not, it features a mountain range that no longer appears on modern maps, as WIRED explains. Because it never existed in the first place.

A 19th century map of West Africa
From Milner's Descriptive Atlas, 1850

The “Mountains of Kong” appeared on almost every major commercial map of Africa in the 1800s, stretching across the western part of the continent between the Gulf of Guinea and the Niger River. This mythical east-west mountain range is now the subject of an art exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.

In "Mountains of Kong," stereoscopic images by artist Jim Naughten—the same format that allowed Victorians with wanderlust to feel like they’d seen the world—reveal his view of the world of wildlife that might have existed inside the imagined mountains. As the gallery describes it, “he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition of the mountain range.” We’ve reproduced the images here, but to get the full effect, you’ll have to go to the gallery in person, where you can view them in 3D with a stereoscope (like the ones you no doubt played with as a kid).

Toucans fight a snake in two almost-identical side-by-side images.
The Toucans © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

Naughten created the images by taking two photographs for each, and moving the camera over some 3 inches for the second photo to make a stereoscopic scene. The landscapes were created by shooting images of Scottish and Welsh mountains and dioramas in natural history museums, using Photoshop to change the hues of the images to make them seem more otherworldly. His blue-and-pink-hued images depict fearsome apes, toucans sparring with snakes, jagged peaks, and other scenes that seem both plausible and fantastical at the same time.

The Mountains of Kong appeared in several hundred maps up until the 20th century. The first, in 1798, was created by the prominent geographer James Rennell to accompany a book by Scottish explorer Mungo Park about his first journey to West Africa. In it, Park recounts gazing on a distant range, and “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.” Rennell, in turn, took this brief observation and, based on his own theories about the course of the Niger River, drew a map showing the mountain range that he thought was the source of the river. Even explorers who later spent time in the area believed the mountains existed—with some even claiming that they crossed them.

Two colobuses stand in a tree on a mountaintop.
The Colobus © Jim Naughten. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery

The authority of the maps wasn’t questioned, even by those who had been to the actual territory where they were depicted as standing. Writers began to describe them as “lofty,” “barren,” and “snow-covered.” Some said they were rugged granite peaks; others described them as limestone terraces. In almost all cases, they were described as “blue.” Their elevation ranged from 2500 feet to 14,000 feet, depending on the source. Over the course of the 19th century, “there was a general southward ‘drift’ in the location,” as one pair of scholars put it.

Though geographers cast some doubt on the range’s existence as time went on, the Mountains of Kong continued to appear on maps until French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger’s Niger River expedition between 1887 and 1889, after which Binger definitively declared their nonexistence.

By 1891, the Mountains of Kong began dropping off of maps, though the name Kong still appeared as the name of the region. By the early 20th century, the mountains were gone for good, fading into the forgotten annals of cartographic history.

[h/t WIRED]

All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios