Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Surprise Visit

Last night, Books for Texans met at the Georgetown Public Library. Our normal group showed up to discuss August's book selection: City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle by Bill Minutaglio.

The synopsis of the book given by the Library Journal: On April 16, 1947, two huge explosions rocked the port city of Texas City, TX, killing 600 people, injuring thousands more, leveling houses and buildings, and soaking the landscape with toxic chemicals. Cold War sabotage was initially suspected, but the true culprit was a shipment of ammonium nitrate, a chemical that can be a fertilizer or a deadly explosive. The chemical was being manufactured and shipped by the government with no warning label or instructions for safe handling. Angry at this negligence, attorney Russel Markwell brought the first-ever civil class action suit against the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act and won. Though the victory was overturned on appeal as a dangerous precedent, the government's responsibility wasn't in doubt. Over two thirds of the book is a poignant present-tense account of the hours before, during, and after the explosion, bringing to life the horror, pain, and bravery of the people of Texas City. The account of the lawsuit is secondary, as it should be. This terrible story deserves this passionate retelling.

Here's the REALLY EXCITING part: a survivor of the Texas City explosion was visiting his daughter in Round Rock and read that our book club was discussing the book. So, Floyd Walker joined us for the evening and talked about his recollections of the explosion. He was 5 years old. His mother, sister, and brother were at home, which was located about 2.5 miles from the port. His older brothers were at the high school, which if you've read the book means they were in the thick of it. And, his dad, who was reporting for jury duty in Galveston wasn't at his job and survived. If he didn't have jury duty, chances are he'd been killed in the explosion, too.

Floyd's stories about that day, his memories of growing up in Texas City (he still lives there), and his years working at the refineries made the book come to life.

Thanks, Floyd!

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