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Saturday, March 19, 2005

From 2003 An oldie but still relevant article on sea-going terror

W O R L D T H R E A T S - The Next Threat: Terror At Sea
IN JUNE (2003), Greek authorities seized a suspicious ship, the Baltic Sky, in the Mediterranean Sea and found it packed with 8,000 detonators and 680 tonnes of explosives, mainly Anfo, a commercially manufactured ammonia nitrate-based explosive usually used in mining.

Ammonium nitrate is widely used as a fertiliser in Asia and elsewhere. The United States and other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries imported more than 1.6 million tonnes of ammonium nitrate in 2000, mostly by sea.

With some manipulation, ammonium nitrate can be made into a powerful explosive. It was used in the van bombings in Bali in October last year, and outside the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August. Those bombings killed and injured several hundred people.

Ammonium nitrate was also the main explosive in the truck bombings in Nairobi, Mombasa and Oklahoma City as well as the first terrorist attempt to bomb the World Trade Center in New York in 1993.

Greek Shipping Minister George Anomeritis said that the Baltic Sky's manifest showed that the cargo was supposedly bound for a company in Sudan with 'a post office box in Khartoum that did not exist'. He described the ship's potential explosive power as akin to 'an atomic bomb'.

This was an exaggeration but it certainly would have wreaked havoc had it been detonated near a port city.

CNN story from the time here

Interesting take on Turkish-Greek cooperation in the affair here and an unpleasant scenario:
In June 2003, the 2,000-ton coastal freighter named Baltic Sky picked up 750 tons of ammonium nitrate and about 8,000 detonators in Tunisia for delivery to Sudan. Instead of heading south, it traveled north through the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits into the Black Sea, came back through the Turkish straits into the Aegean Sea, and then entered the Ionian Sea, west of Greece, where Greek commandos seized it.

Ammonium nitrate, used primarily as agricultural fertilizer, is easily converted into explosives. Al Qaeda terrorists used ammonium nitrate to bomb the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and in a hotel bombing in Jakarta in August 2003.

The Irish Republican Army used ammonium nitrate to turn vehicles into bombs, and it was the main explosive in the 1995 Oklahoma City truck bombing by U.S. anti-government militants, as well as in the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Turkish police claim that ammonium nitrate explosives were used in the truck bombings in Istanbul in November 2003.

If the explosives aboard the Baltic Sky had been detonated under Istanbul�s Bosporus bridge, the bridge would have collapsed into one of the world�s busiest shipping channels, blocking the passage of oil tankers and cargo vessels for many months, costing the international economic system hundreds of billions of dollars, and killing vast numbers of Turkish civilians.

Instead, the vessel was spotted by Turkish officials near the Dardanelles, and Greek authorities � probably tipped off through NATO channels � began tracking it several days later. Shortly after seizure of the ship, NATO officials stated that they were actively seeking about 20 more �suspect� vessels in the Mediterranean they believed could be used by terrorists.
20 more?!

Also a reminder of what was going on at the time:
The ship which belongs to an Irish company is flying under the Camorra Island flag with Ukrainian and Azerbaijani sailors. As the �Baltic Sky� was moving in Greek waters while 25 of the world�s leaders were attending a �Summit� in Halkidiki (Greece presently holding the EE Presidency), there was no room for delay. The Greek government, the Ministry of Merchant Marine and the Coast Guard took immediate action. The suspicious ship was impounded, the crew was brought before the district attorney and the cargo confiscated! As can be seen, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers has brought about a common American � European anti-terrorist front.


Thought it makes a nice reminder.

Writing of ships exploding (not my favorite topic) reminded me of three such explosions, The first in 1917 was the result of a collision in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 2,000 people died. Good site here. The second was the Port Chicago blast:
Just before
10:20 p.m. on July 17th, 1944, the worst home front disaster of WWII, occurred at a Naval pier in the San Francisco Bay Area. Five thousand tons of ammunition in ships being loaded by black sailors exploded, sending a blast more than 12,000 feet into the sky. The explosion destroyed the pier, a train, and both ships, instantly killing everyone aboard (some 320 men).
Site here. The third was the Texas City explosion:
When someone in Texas City mentions "The Explosion," no explanation is necessary. Everybody in the city knows what happened on April 16, 1947. Many remember it firsthand. That cool spring morning when a ship blew up in the port on Galveston Bay. The blast took nearly 600 lives and millions of dollars in property, and it scarred the town. A half-century later, people in Texas City celebrate their recovery, but still mourn their loss.
(source here)

Houston Chronicle

TEXAS CITY - On the morning of April 16, 1947, shortly after 8 a.m., the hatch on the No. 4 hold of the French ship the S.S. Grandcamp was opened so that stevedores could resume loading a shipment of fertilizer bound for Europe.

It was the beginning of a beautiful, cool day, a breeze was coming out of the north, and Texas City was at work again.

Much of the rest of the country, still in the grip of a postwar recession, couldn't say that, but Texas City was different.

Along the waterfront, there was plenty of work for the town's longshoremen, and next to the wharf stood a hissing, steaming landscape of chemical plants and oil refineries that provided steady, good-paying jobs for much of the town.

With a population of 18,000, Texas City was nothing less than a boomtown, a place the hometown newspaper declared with every edition to be "the port of opportunity - the heart of the greatest industrial development of the South."

If anyone complained about the smell, they were told it was the smell of money and that they'd soon grow accustomed to it.

Occasional fires and explosions were part of the equation. They had, in effect, come to be treated by the townspeople as a source of public theater. If lightning struck an oil storage tank to spark a fire, a crowd would gather to watch it burn. It was like going to the picture show.

The ship fire on April 16, 1947, was much the same, only better. No one in town had seen one quite like it. It was the color of the smoke that caught their eyes. Some called it a peach color, some called it reddish orange. Many said it was pretty.

The fire was coming from the Grandcamp.

Berthed at Pier O, the ship already was loaded with oil-field machinery, drill stems, peanuts, sisal twine and small-arms ammunition. At Texas City, it was to be loaded primarily with ammonium nitrate, a crystalline powder that in peacetime was an excellent source of nitrogen for crops. In wartime, the substance was combined with TNT to make a bursting charge in demolition bombs.

When the small fire inside the Grandcamp could not be doused with jugs of drinking water or a portable extinguisher, an order was given to batten down the ship's hatches and cover them with tarpaulins.

The Grandcamp's fire-smothering steam system was activated to keep the cargo from being damaged by water. But instead of killing the fire, the heat and pressure started decomposition of the ammonium nitrate fertilizer and produced combustible gas. The ship's hatch covers eventually blew off, sending the smoke skyward.

By 8:45 a.m., 27 members of the Texas City Volunteer Fire Department were spraying water on the Grandcamp's deck. The ship was so hot that the water from the fire hoses vaporized.

Predictably, a crowd began gathering to watch the unusual smoke that formed above the port.

"Hey, let's go see it," someone said at a gym class at Central High School, the town's white high school.

Kids cut class and ran down to the wharves to watch.

In the southside neighborhoods closest to the city's industries, where Texas City's blacks and Mexican-Americans lived, people gathered along the edge of a fire wall to view the smoke.

The sight was no less enticing to the men and women who worked in the town's petrochemical industries. At the Republic Oil Co. refinery, the chief of security was taking carloads of people to the docks to watch the fire. The refinery manager, assistant manager, personnel director, laboratory manager and transportation director all ran outside to catch rides.

The decision to cease work along the waterfront was made after it became clear the fire inside the Grandcamp could not be controlled.

Ceary Johnson, a 37-year-old longshoreman who was unloading rail cars that day, didn't bother to stop and gawk when the call to quit working went out.

While his colleagues milled around nearby warehouses to watch the fire, Johnson decided to get a cup of coffee. As he walked to a nearby cafe, he passed Father William Roach, a well-known Catholic priest in town, and Mike Mikeska, the head of the Texas City Terminal Railway Co., which operated the port. The two men were speaking in earnest tones about towing the burning ship away from the docks if the fire grew worse.

Another longshoreman, George Sanders, also had stopped his work loading flour on the freighter Wilson B. Keene, moored in a slip just south of the burning Grandcamp.

Sanders, 21, had worked on the Grandcamp the day before, and instead of going home he stopped to watch the fire at the end of the slip. He stepped up on a small fence to get a better look over a barge that partially blocked his view. A boy he knew walked up to watch.

Nearby, in a building at the Monsanto Chemical Co., people kept walking into the drafting room that had a window which afforded an ideal view of the ship fire.

It seemed to Mary Hunter, a secretary to the head engineer at Monsanto, that the smoke billowing into the air was keeping everyone from settling down to work. Someone had brought doughnuts to the office, as a further distraction. Hunter, who had skipped breakfast, told a co-worker they should share a doughnut, and as she broke one in half, it happened. The fire on the ship, which had sent such pretty smoke into the sky moments before, exploded at 9:12 a.m....
(source here)

Both the Halifax and Texas City death tolls were raised by the duration of the events- crowds gathered to watch the fires. The Grandcamp was being loaded with ... ammonium nitrate. Just like the Baltic Sky....

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