The Texas City Disaster

IMG_0002Since I’ve been visiting with my family in Texas for the holidays, I decided to take a trip down to my hometown of Texas City, TX to tour some of the historical sites related to the Texas City Disaster. Most people don’t know anything about this event, but it’s actually a big part of Texas, and even national, history.

On April 16, 1947, a ship carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded and destroyed much of the town of Texas City, killing about 600 people. About 65 of those people were never found or identified.

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This anchor was blown from the S.S. Grandcamp when this ship blew up on April 16, 1947, while moored at Texas City Terminal docks. The anchor, which weighed approximately 3200 lbs. originally, was projected from the ship to a point on Pan American property at 2000-S and 2160-E, sinking about 10 feet into the soil in landing. The distance traveled from ship to point of landing was 1.62 miles. It is now at Memorial Park, the site where the unidentified dead lay at rest.

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This statue, created by Lee Stark, sits in the section dedicated to those grieving the victims of the Texas City Disaster and the 1900 Storm that hit Galveston.

I had heard stories about this event growing up, but it wasn’t until I was in high school and had to write a paper on it that I became more interested in what happened. I interviewed my grandpa since he lived near the site of the explosion and was there at the time. He told me that when he heard the explosion, he thought Judgement Day had come.

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This fountain and statue were built in memory of the Texas City volunteer firemen who lost their lives in the Texas City Disaster.

The explosion was the force of an atomic bomb and the effects were so strong that windows in Houston, some 40 miles away, shattered. The blast also registered on a seismograph all the way in Denver, Colorado.

I took these pictures because I’m working on a story that takes place during the disaster and wanted to get reacquainted with the events that transpired. I grew up seeing these sites and artifacts, but had no idea of their significance back then. It was good to see them now with a new appreciation of this historic event that helped shape Texas City into the town that it is today.

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The S.S. Highflyer exploded in the main slip on 4-17-1947, after being set on fire by the S.S. Grandcamp, which exploded in the north slip on 4-16-1947. This is one of the Highflyer’s propellers that blew off during the explosion. It sits at the entrance to the Texas City Dike at Anchor Park.

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There are several of these anchors on display throughout the city. This is the one at Anchor Park near the Texas City Dike.

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A view of the docks today. The north slip where the Grandcamp and Highflyer exploded is somewhere in the center of this picture, probably near the tall silo.

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Looking toward the docks from outside the fence. The area is closed off today, but when the disaster occurred, residents could walk right up to the docks.

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There used to be rows of houses on this grassy land, which sits right across the street from the refinery. The homes that were destroyed during the disaster were eventually rebuilt, but have since been torn down as the refineries have bought the land. I think some people still refuse to move, but this is not a good location to live in.

One thing that was new to me on this tour was the newly redesigned Texas City Museum that has an entire section dedicated to the Texas City Disaster. They had lots of artifacts from the explosions and even a video that a woman took on an 8mm camera of the explosion as seen from the Texas City Dike. I had no idea that someone caught this on video and it was pretty fascinating to see.

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This anchor sits right outside the Texas City Museum. This museum has been there since 1948, but I missed it since I rarely spent any time on 6th Street. I also wasn’t into history or museums when I lived there. This museum has recently been remodeled and looks very nice on the inside. The curators take great care in keeping it up.

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The shipper’s Export Declaration Form from the S.S. Highflyer — a true copy of the original dated April 15, 1947. If you can zoom in, you can see the amount of ammonium nitrate that was ordered.

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A shoe belonging to one of the victims of the explosion.

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A piece of shrapnel from one of the ships that exploded.

While I couldn’t take any pictures or do any recordings of the videos, I could take pictures of everything else, so I took as many as possible. I even touched things that were okay to touch, like a large piece of shrapnel from one of the ships that exploded. Seeing the artifacts in the museum and reading the stories almost made me feel like I was there.

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The caption on this reads, “Frozen in time. This clock is from the City Hall Service Station in Texas City. The clock stopped at exactly the time of the first explosion on April 16, 1947.”

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From the museum’s description: “There were 59,000 rolls of sisal binder twine stored in the hold of the Grandcamp. When the explosion occurred, the twine was scattered over the entire area of about a mile radius. It is believed that the bales torched hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline and oil spilling out from ruptured reservoirs and pipelines. This is one of the rolls of twine from the Grandcamp.”

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The caption reads, “There are various pieces of shrapnel from the ships that exploded during the Texas City disaster. The pieces of shrapnel were called “raindrops” because they fell from the sky on April 16, 1947.”

This was a great visit and I was able to scout locations and gather a lot more important details that I can use in my story, although mine is more of a fictitious narrative based on actual events. However, I still want to make it as real as possible.

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What’s in a Name?

In this video, I share my personal story and unveil a new name with a new logo. Please forgive the technical glitch on the title slide in the beginning. I was just made aware of that when this finished uploading to YouTube. Also, there is a bit of wind noise coming through the microphone. I was testing out a new Rode mic for the first time and will probably return it for a better one. Take a look at what’s on the horizon for this series.

A Baldy Bust and a Few Blessings

On Friday, I hiked Mt. Baldy with a few of my co-workers who had been wanting to climb that mountain for a while. I was super excited to join them as I had hiked Baldy something like 40 times and was very accustomed to the terrain. I consider it my favorite mountain in Southern California. Sharing the experience with my co-workers and celebrating with those who would reach the summit for the first time would have been a real treat and I was looking forward to it.

The morning started out early. We hit the trail around 7am and the first half-mile was fairly easy and we were able to hike as a group. When the trail got steep, I fell behind as I was really beginning to feel the altitude. I hadn’t climbed Baldy since May and hadn’t spent much time at altitude at all this year, so my body wasn’t as acclimated as it once was and I had to shake off that rustiness. I also had to push through some things that weighed heavily on my heart and mind.

The bigger issue was the altitude. Although I was quite a ways behind the group, I was making good time toward the ski hut, the halfway point to the summit. As I huffed it up the steep, rocky trail, I heard someone come up behind me. When I pulled off to the side to let him pass, he said my name as he greeted me, and I realized it was my friend Patrick who I know from a mountaineering group. He gave me a hug and told me that some of our other friends were right behind him. They were going to hike up to the summit and descend the same way. I greeted them and let them pass and noticed that they weren’t hiking much faster than me. However, I knew they would summit and be on their way down before I reached the top.

Patrick at the creek near the ski hut.

When I reached the ski hut and met up with my group, I didn’t want to stop, but they were just relaxing and enjoying the surroundings. I wanted so badly to be fully present with them, but knew that the toughest parts of the hike were just ahead, so I was anxious to get going. I didn’t want to admit that I was experiencing the onset of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) for fear that they would worry, so I told them that if they reached the summit and saw that I wasn’t there after a while not to wait for me because I would probably descend with my friends who had passed me earlier.

I took off and headed up Baldy Bowl through the pine trees. Before long, the group caught up to me. I had gotten a pretty big jump on them, so I was kind of surprised that they caught up so quickly. As I neared the top of the ridge, I could feel my lungs and legs beginning to struggle and weaken, but I was determined, so I pushed myself. I figured I’d take a good rest at the top of the ridge and from there, it was another steep climb to the summit, but I knew I could do it as I had done so many times before.

Steep ascent.

When I reached the top of the ridge, I got hit pretty hard. I had felt the effects of altitude sickness before, but the symptoms were usually mild and came in the form of a headache, which I was usually able to ease with ibuprofen. But this time, it wasn’t a headache. I felt lightheaded and my pulse wouldn’t slow down, even after resting a few minutes. These were classic symptoms of AMS. I tried my best to smile through it while conversing with the group so that they wouldn’t suspect anything. I had already let them know that I might be turning back before reaching the summit, so at least I was in the clear.

The group continued up the mountain and I stayed behind and pulled out my oxymeter to check my O2 levels. I was unable to get a reading because my fingertips were cold, so I had a snack and then tried to continue the uphill slog at a slower pace. Then the ringing in my ears started. I decided to sit down on a rock for a few minutes and try to check my O2 levels again. This time I got a reading and it was normal, but my pulse wasn’t slowing down. I was probably at an elevation of 8700 feet at this point. Though I really wanted to continue, I felt that if I did try to push through, I would have hurt myself and had a miserable experience. So I gathered my pack and began the steep trek downhill.

The Devil’s Backbone Trail.

When I reached the ski hut, Patrick was there sitting on a bench. I asked how he managed to make it back there without me seeing him and he said he descended via another route that led him straight there. It was a steep scree-laden route that a lot of hardcore mountaineers take and not something I would ever do since I’m afraid of heights and of falling.

Patrick was waiting for the other guys, James, Jeff and Shin. I sat with him and had another snack, but I could still feel the effects of AMS and wondered if I should just begin the descent on my own. The best thing to do when you’re hit with AMS is to descend immediately. Since we were still at high altitude (the ski hut is at 8200 ft), I knew the symptoms were going to linger until I got lower.

It wasn’t long before the guys joined us and we began our trek down the rugged trail. On the way down, we met up with some other friends, Hikin Jim and his sweet daughter Joycie, who were on their way up to the ski hut. It was great to see them as I hadn’t seen Jim since 2014 when I did the Rae Lakes Loop backpacking trip. I hadn’t seen Joycie since she was 2 and she’s now 8.

With Jim, Shin and Joycie. Photo credit: James Ledbetter

So this trip didn’t end up a total bust. There were blessings along the journey and I embraced those special moments. I normally don’t do two big hikes back to back, but the next day, I hiked to Strawberry Peak with a big hiking group. I had done Strawberry Peak several times before and knew it was a challenging hike, but since it was at a lower elevation, I wanted to give it a try to redeem myself from the day before.

Strawberry Peak.

It’s always disappointing when you have to turn back from summiting a peak, even though you know it could be detrimental to your survival if you continue. But we have to be wise and set pride aside to do what’s good for us, regardless. I walked away from that Baldy hike filled with disappointment, but there were angels along the way who showed me love in the midst of that and made me smile and laugh again.

Instead of staying home on Saturday, I decided to get up and give it another go. It wasn’t Baldy, but another very challenging hike that involved a bit of rock scrambling. During that second outing, I found that I have become a much stronger hiker, and even though I took many pictures along the way, I wasn’t the last one of the group as usual. It was a fairly large group and I was able to stay in the middle section of the group. I even passed a few people along the way. One of the highlights of that trip was getting to catch up with my friend Jane who I hadn’t seen in a while. Normally, I’m not even able to hold a conversation on the trail, so this was pretty big for me.

Jane in love with the outdoors.

 

When I signed the summit register on Strawberry Peak, I wrote the words, “Never give up! Conquer your peak!” I wrote it so that those who came behind me and examined that register would be encouraged in whatever they might be going through. I went from disappointed to inspired in just 24 hours. I decided not to quit on myself, even though my ego was pretty bruised after I couldn’t climb Baldy the day before. But the story wasn’t over.

My summit register entry.

Sometimes things don’t work out or go the way we expect them to and we’re tempted to lie down and quit, giving in to the pain of discouragement. It’s okay to feel that pain and take some time to shake it off. Do whatever is needed in that moment, but don’t stay there. Get up, lace up those boots and get to walking. There is always a peak to conquer and in conquering that peak, you will find that you are truly conquering yourself.

Hike on!
~J

OptOutside Hike: Skeleton Canyon

The day after Thanksgiving, my friends and I drove out to Mecca Hills, CA to participate in REI’s OptOutside campaign. Since it was such a far drive, we decided to make a weekend out of it. Our first hike of the weekend was suggested by my dear friend Ava and took us through the narrow walls of Skeleton Canyon. We didn’t find any skeletons out there, but had a spook of a time!

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc Express – Day 2 (Video)

On this leg of the hike, we trekked from Les Contamines up the Chemin Roman and through the Contamines Montjoie Nature Reserve to the Col du Bonhomme. At an elevation of 7,641 ft, it’s still not the highest point on this route. However, the steep, rugged climb provided us with sweeping vistas of high peaks and beautiful landscapes.

After reaching the Col du Bonhomme, we were only about halfway done with the hike. Since our destination for the day was the Refuge des Mottets, we had to traverse across more rough and rocky ground to reach the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. After that, it was on to the highest point on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the Col des Fours at an elevation of 8,750 ft.

Instead of this being an 11-mile hike as we had anticipated, the route ended up being more like 15-20 miles. I almost gave up completing the tour after this, but some encouragement from my friends helped me to keep going.

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc Express (Video)

In August, my friends and I fulfilled a big dream together and hiked the world famous Tour du Mont Blanc. This trek had been on my to-do list for a while and I was scoping it out with REI Adventures when a friend suggested that I join their group. They were doing the express version of the hike in 6 days, so their trip was more budget-friendly.

REI’s trip was 13 days, so it was nearly double the price of what we paid, and that didn’t even include airfare. It’s a little bit crazy to take on this level of a hike in such a short period of time, but entirely doable. We saw a video of a couple that did it in the same amount of time, so that gave us more confidence.

The trip wasn’t without its challenges, though. However, this first day of the journey was relatively mellow and provided a good warmup for the rest of the trip. On this first day, we hiked from Les Houches, France via Col de Tricot and Le Truc into Les Contamines, France where we spent the night. It was a total of 11 miles with 4,728 ft elevation gain and 4,144 ft elevation loss.

Off to Great Places!

I dropped Mr. Frodo off at the pet hotel Friday morning shortly after 8am and went home to finish my last bit of packing. The driver showed up promptly at 11:15 as promised. I got a nicer Mercedes than I had requested. The driver, Arman, was very nice and professional and we had a good conversation on the hour-long drive to the airport. I wasn’t trying to be all high society or anything. I had a voucher for this great car company and decided that my first trip to Europe was the best opportunity to use it.

Mr. Frodo and I

My airport shuttle

When I arrived at the Tom Brady International Terminal at LAX, I realized I had never been to that part of the airport before. When I went to Israel two years ago, I flew on an American airline, so I was in a different wing. As I entered the terminal, it felt like I was in another country already. I heard so many different languages being spoken and so many dialects that I was in awe of all the diversity around me. The terminal was really amazing and had a nice shopping mall inside. I noticed lots of people walking around carrying neck pillows and thought it would be a good idea for me as well, so I bought one on the way to the gate.

I hadn’t had a chance to eat breakfast so I braved the long line at Panda Express and ordered a chicken entree. Since I was already in vacation mode, it didn’t bother me that this wasn’t part of the vegan diet I was supposed to be on. I didn’t even eat all of it, just enough to get rid of the hunger. I knew dinner would be served on the plane.

I had to make this leg of the journey alone and face my fears only with God’s help. I was already heartbroken from having to leave Mr. Frodo at the pet hotel. Of course, he didn’t take it well, as usual. I just showed him as much love as possible and prayed over him before I left, but I had little time to be sentimental. I was also worried about my own health and wondered how I would hold up on such a long flight after the DVT I had two years ago.

The plane, an Airbus 380, was the biggest plane I had ever seen. When I stepped on board, the fears I had became less relevant. As the plane backed out of the gate, I knew I was past the point of no return. I said my prayers and left everything in God’s hands. I followed my doctor’s orders and took one full-strength aspirin per day for three days prior to the flight and wore my compression socks to prevent my calves from swelling. I sat in an aisle seat rather than my preferred window seat so that I could get up and walk around as much as possible. The stairwell in the back of the plane was great to use as a stair-master to keep my blood flowing.

The stairs in back of the Airbus 380

I was a little scared initially because it felt like the blood wasn’t circulating well in my right leg. It started shortly before I boarded the plane and lasted quite a while. About halfway through the long flight, the blood felt like it was flowing normally again. The flight went very well otherwise and I arrived in Paris Friday morning on time. Paris’ airport didn’t seem much different than LAX, except maybe a little more chi-chi.

Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France

Stephanie with a huge lollipop.

The arrival in Paris marked the end of my solo part of the journey as I met up with my friend Stephanie who had arrived a few days early to tour Paris. We were flying into Geneva, Switzerland on the same flight and would meet up with the rest of our friends there. I was thankful to not have to go into Geneva and have to figure out currency conversion and the airport transfers alone.

We were on AF 1442 to Geneve

The flight from Paris to Geneva was only an hour and fifteen minutes. I was randomly assigned a window seat with extra legroom at no additional charge. I didn’t mind since the flight was so short. They served a snack and I must have dozed off shortly after that. I was awakened by a bump and realized the plane had just landed.

View from the window seat on the short flight to Geneva, Switzerland

When we went to collect our luggage, Stephanie told me she got a text from our friends that they left Amsterdam late and we would most likely get to meet up and share the airport transfer with them after all. They were scheduled to arrive in Geneva well before us and probably weren’t going to wait if our flight was delayed. After we all met up at baggage claim, we stopped at the ATM and withdrew some Swiss Francs (because the machines didn’t give us the option to select Euros) and headed over to the Mountain Drop-offs station to meet our driver who was already there waiting for us.

It was raining when we left the airport. And I don’t mean the LA kind of rain where it’s barely misting. It was really raining. The air was so moist and cool. It was great that the van was large enough to hold all twelve of us and that our other friends we had yet to meet up with had made other arrangements since they were arriving much later.

On the way to Les Houches

We passed a Mont Blanc sign on the way to Les Houches

The drive to Les Houches, France from Geneva took about an hour. Our driver, Johnny, was very friendly and talkative. He taught us the correct pronunciation of some of the French names we saw and recommended some clubs in Chamonix since my friend Tina and I wanted to check them out. We’re not typically party people in the clubbing sense. We just wanted to do something out of the ordinary in a new place.

The Hotel Campanules in Les Houches, France

View of the snow-covered Alps from the Hotel Campanules

When we arrived in Les Houches, I wasn’t really prepared for the cold temperatures we were met with. It had stopped raining but the ground was still wet and there was a lot of moisture in the air, so it felt good to get inside the cozy hotel. For some reason, my room wasn’t ready, so I had to wait a few minutes. I wasn’t happy about that because I was so exhausted and just wanted to rest, but I had to be patient. Finally, the clerk came and brought my room key so I was able to go put my heavy stuff down and relax a bit before meeting up with the group to discuss the next day’s itinerary.

They used keys instead of room cards here

Inside the hotel lobby

A place to relax in the lobby

Fireplace in one of the common areas

The hotel was rustic yet charming. It was more like a chalet. I had a single room that I loved. Although it didn’t have a spectacular view of the mountains as I was placed facing the back of the property, I had a peaceful view of the woods. I loved how everything was so green there. There was fresh snow on the mountains, but the clouds covered them providing us with only a partial view.

My room with a view of the woods

After discussing our plans for the next day, some of us walked the grounds checking out the scenery and taking pictures. I was in awe of that beautiful place, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. I so looked forward to hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc and seeing more of what that part of Europe had to offer. Our first dinner in France was excellent.

Hanging out in one of the common areas with friends

The first course, a shrimp appetizer

Pork loin for the main entree

Pear and ice cream dessert

Afterwards, we were fueled up and ready for the next day’s adventures!

~J