BASF Explosion

BASF Explosion


A selection of historical paint references

by Peter Walters

With the London Bombings this month all minds are on terrorism and the fear of where terrorists may strike next.
A cheap and easy to construct terror weapon is a load of ammonium nitrate fertiliser in the back of a truck. This was the weapon used in the Oklahoma Bombing on April 19, 1995.
What most readers of Painted Memories may not realise is that a major supplier to our industry, BASF, inadvertently and tragically ‘invented’ the ‘fertiliser bomb’ in 1921.
This extract is from the book "In the Realm of Chemistry", a book published by BASF on the occasion of their centenary in 1965.

This is the speech given by Carl Bosch, then the CEO of BASF, on September 25 1921, in the days immediately after the disaster that had occurred on 21 September 1921. Carl Bosch kept his nerve in the weeks immediately following the tragedy, but later fell ill as a result of the appalling experience.

Two explosions, at 7:29 and 7:31am, resulted in a casualty list of 509 people dead, 160 missing, presumably having been so totally consumed by the blast that no remains could be found, and 1,952 injured. Property damage included the total destruction of the BASF factory at Oppau and of about 70% of the 1,000 nearby houses.

In Heidelberg, about 22km from Oppau, earthquakes from the two explosions were felt first, followed 82 seconds later by a blast that broke windows and doors and damaged gas tanks, oil tanks, and cargo boats on the river. The blast also produced damage in Frankfurt, 85km away from the site of the explosion, and the roaring sound and earthquake reached as far as Bayreuth, 230km away.

The cause of the accident was the blasting with dynamite of a solidified mass of ammonium sulfate nitrate compound fertiliser (a double salt of ammonium sulfate and nitrate in a mole ratio of 1:2). The stockpile was stored outside and solidified through the action of rainfall. The solid mass was loosened for shipping by blasting. This process had been practiced under supervision for many years, and about 30,000 blasting procedures had been carried out without major incident until the Oppau disaster. It is estimated that on that day about 4,500 tons of fertiliser was in the stockpile of which, it was estimated, only about 450 tons exploded. It is assumed that the last cartridge exploded in a region of the mass where the density was lower than usual, because of recent changes in the production, and where the ammonium nitrate concentration in the mixed salt was higher than usual. The important influence of these changes on the sensitivity of the product had not been realised. It was shown later that the sensitivity of the mixed salt to an explosion trigger increased rapidly with increasing ammonium nitrate concentration. This fact also explains why only part of the stockpile exploded.

It is with a heavy heart that I appear before you today on behalf of the management of the company to pay our last respects to those who lost their lives in the appalling catastrophe which has taken place here. For me personally, who built the Oppau factory, the task is doubly difficult, since this tragedy concerns my life-work to which I cling with every fibre of my being and whose development 1 have watched from the very start, together with my fellow-workers who have stood by me loyally in joy and sorrow throughout the long years of its growth. As the one outwardly responsible for this factory, it is my duty in this grave hour to render an account of what has happened. When, still in days of peace, we entered on the great task of pioneering new paths in order to supply Germany with the nitrogen compounds urgently required for her food supply, we could make the venture knowing that we could rely on a scientific and technical organisation of the very first order. Under its earlier management the company had grown into the biggest of its kind in the whole world and had, in the course of its great and successful achievements, trained a staff of workers with which we could approach the big problems with confidence. The new tasks which faced us were unusually difficult and, in some cases, dangerous, but in long years of persevering work all the investigations and all the preliminary work had been carried out which enabled us to set up the first plant in Oppau. The war, with the colossal demands it made on German industry, had presented us with growing tasks, leading finally to the extension of the Oppau and Merseburg factories which are unique in the world.
The outsider cannot possibly gain even an approximate conception of the enormous dimensions of this task and of the profundity of the scientific research and technical work which we have had to carry out in the course of almost 13 years; only those who have taken an active part in them can do so. An answer to each and every problem had to be found, every last secret of the forces of nature had to be explored before all the difficulties which the task involved could be successfully mastered. All the heavier was the blow of fate which struck me and hundreds of men who worked with me and have given of their best at a moment when we imagined that we had reached this goal - a blow which showed us, to our horror, that all our work and all our efforts were nought but vain human endeavour, that nature had not allowed her last secrets to be wrested from her with 'levers and screws', that again and again we find ourselves standing before the dark door of uncertainty.
Neither technical error nor human neglect have caused the catastrophe. New properties of nature, still inexplicable to us, have scorned all our efforts. The very material which was destined to provide food to nourish and sustain millions of our fellow-countrymen, a material which we have manufactured and sold for years, suddenly proved itself a grim enemy for reasons which we do not know. It has laid our factory in ruins. But what is that in comparison with the losses caused by the catastrophe! Here we stand quite powerless and helpless, and all the obvious action which we can take to comfort the bereaved and the injured is nothing compared to the loss of life. All we can do is to be deeply grateful to the dead for what they meant to us during their lives, a gratitude to which I here give heart-felt expression on behalf of the Board of Management and the Supervisory Board. From time immemorial mankind's fight with the forces of nature has demanded untold sacrifices, usually less obvious since we were not fully conscious of them. But here, in view of such a mighty disaster, this struggle appears in all its appalling tragedy. For this struggle is not a voluntary one; it must be fought, and even today, before the open graves, this inexorable 'must' compels us to continue along the path of duty. If anything can comfort us in our deep sorrow, it is the knowledge that the hard tasks which still face us will be taken up for the preservation of our home country, whose fight to survive is harder today than ever before, now that the consequences of the war are for the first time becoming really apparent. One of the most important prerequisites for survival is our nitrogen factories. Although today we stand before ruins, we must nevertheless return to work undismayed, a work whose brilliance and fame are only external and which in reality is and will remain beset with thorns. If I did not know that, despite the shock caused by the accident, we shall continue to command the confidence of our fellow-workers, I should despair in face of the new tasks with which we are now confronted. In honour of those, however, who are no longer with us, but who have descended into the dark realm of shades, and in grateful remembrance of their loyal service and devotion to duty, I have, deeply moved, laid a wreath at their grave.