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City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle Hardcover – January 7, 2003

4 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Like the explosions it describes, Minutaglio's account is incendiary reading. Two oceangoing freighters loaded with ammonium nitrate leveled a factory town in 1947. Was it an atomic blast? Terrorism? Judgment Day? The author (First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty) assembles a harrowing mosaic about a blaze during a time of racial divisions and environmental plundering amid petrochemical companies that virtually ruled Texas City, Tex. He pauses to fill in the manufacturing town's pivotal role in WWII and sketches the principals involved in the gargantuan fire. From a priest beset with apocalyptic visions to a battle-scarred mayor, these and other residents come to life. The impact of the story is marred only by slight gaffes: Minutaglio sometimes switches between past tense and present without clear reason. Nonetheless, this tale is evocatively told. His hard-edged prose brands scores of images on readers' minds: the beheaded statue of Mary; a naked father clutching onto his charred automobile; the longshoreman delivered to the morgue even though he isn't dead; and so many more. The book vividly details the carnage as well as some acts of heroism and selflessness.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From 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. For all collections.
Deirdre Bray Root, Middletown P.L., OH
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; 1 edition (January 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060185414
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060185411
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #308,997 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bill Minutaglio is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including biographies of President George W. Bush, Molly Ivins and Alberto Gonzales, and a narrative retelling of the greatest man-made disaster in American history. An anthology of his writing about race and injustice in America is entitled "In Search of The Blues: A Journey To The Soul of Black Texas."

His work has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Newsweek, Texas Monthly, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Outside and many other publications. His work has been featured, along with that of Ernest Hemingway, in Esquire's list of the greatest tales of survival ever written.

Reviewers have compared his writing to Tom Wolfe, Herman Melville and Hunter Thompson. His work has been optioned by Tom Cruise, published in China and lauded by Oliver Stone. Among the writers who have offered praise on his book jackets: Buzz Bissinger, Sir Harold Evans, Douglas Brinkley, Gail Sheehy, James Lee Burke and Mario Puzo.

He has won numerous awards for his writing, including recognition from The National Association of Black Journalists and The National Conference of Christians and Jews, which saluted his work in fighting prejudice. He has been featured on The Today Show, NPR's Fresh Air and other programs. He has been interviewed by Katie Couric, Brian Williams, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and others.

His work has been called "excellent" by The New York Review of Books, New Republic and others. The NYTimes has called his work "fascinating." The San Francisco Chronicle has called his work "chilling." The Texas Observer said his book "City On Fire" was one of the "finest books ever written about Texas."

He is a professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, where he is The Fellow to the Everett Collier Chair. He has been honored as one of the Outstanding Teachers in the University of Texas statewide system. He is a columnist for The Texas Observer, one of America's oldest and important investigative magazines.

"Minutaglio has long been regarded as one of the great writers in Texas journalism."
The Austin American-Statesman

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Mr. Minutaglio's City on Fire was very hard to put down after the first few pages. A priest foreshadows his own death in the Texas City Disaster. You feel like you really get to know the people in the story, which is amazing since it covers the whole town's experience leading up to and following the ammonium-nitrate explosions. It wasn't too long ago this explosion happened in sight of known history. However, little do we learn from the past as we watch big goverment, big business, greed and human ignorance take us down similar paths that we are helpless to control collectively, whereas individuals find grace by doing what they believe to be right.
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Format: Hardcover
"City on Fire" purports to be a work of history, but it is so poorly written that it loses whatever historical value it might have. Much of it is written in the present tense, rarely ever appropriate in a historical work. Additionally, the book contains no notes or bibliography, another major warning sign in a work of history. Given how it is constructed, one has to wonder if the author intended for his work to read like a historical novel, but it fails on that level as well.
It's a pity, because the subject itself is quite interesting and deserves a much better treatment.
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Format: Hardcover
Swings from over-simplification to exaggeration in City on Fire leaves this reader almost dizzy. It is fortunate the author incorporated the research of Hugh Stephens (The Texas City Disaster 1947) to somewhat stabilize his story. For ?story? winds insidiously throughout what purports to be an historical account. The book?s recounting of so many impossible-to-know private thoughts and actions of citizens, plus the seemingly arrogant absence of footnotes and sources weakens any credibility. Careless errors in first names of the citizens (sometimes even last names), the lay-out of the town in distances and directions and the 1947 construction materials of various structures add to the confusion.
The blast was indeed a disaster, but the author seems to stretch for sensational descriptions. In the first hours after the explosion countless ordinary citizens voluntarily stepped in to do what needed to be done. Their heroism is a legacy.
I found the book to be a mixture of fact and fiction with no map to help separate the components. Therefore, it is not credible to me. I will not add it to my library.
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By A Customer on January 16, 2003
Format: Hardcover
If you're not interested reading a story that is absolutely factual or at least as factual as someone's research can make it, this book is probably one you want to read. After all, it is a dramatic telling of the cataclysmic explosion in Texas City in 1947.
Yet if you are a fussy reader like me, something is going to bother you about the narrative. It's very simple. In the case of at least one of the major figures of the book, Father Bill Roach, the author puts words in his mouth; tells us what he is thinking; and frequently informs us in detail of his routine actions. This is despite the fact that Father Roach died in the explosion, and unless the author knows the secret of time travel or can speak with the dead, this means there is a large amount of fiction in the book.
To me, this wrecks the credibility of the narrative. The enormous amount of research Mr. Minutaglio did almost becomes moot. He doesn't even give us footnotes, endnotes, or chapter notes, so we can pick out what amounts to pure speculation on his part and ignore it.
His only sop to the readers is italicizing some passages. These he coyly describes as "external and internal dialogue" that he "built" from what is known as fact. In the end, I find myself wondering why he didn't just stick to the facts like most other writers of non-fiction do or simply write a novel about the explosion. He writes very well, and I bet such a book would have sold.
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Format: Paperback
I went to school on Galveston Island and the disaster was discussed during the anniversary of the horrific event, so I was pleased to get a very readable account. Short chapters make it easy for even the busiest reader to get through. It has intrigue,politics,race relations,corporate greed and human interest antedotes. The author is from Texas so he is able to add some of the regional seasoning to the story. Was glad to see there was some follow up of the main characters years after the event. A must read!!!
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Format: Paperback
Although the Texas City Disaster happened in living memory, it's been largely forgotten. I've lived in Houston since '77 and heard about it for the first time only a few years ago.

I was therefore thrilled to find such a thorough and interesting account of what happened. Minutaglio puts to rest a few myths about the event and takes the reader through the tragedy as witnessed by individuals and as it affected the town as a whole. My only gripe with the content is that I would've liked to have known more about the long-term toxic effects of all those burning chemicals and the later dousing of the town with DDT.

I also feel like I should mention the writing, which was engaging but at times a bit hard to follow. Characters and chronology felt jumbled, as if a key editing pass had been overlooked before the final proof was approved. This wasn't a macro-level problem; just individual sentences in chapters that made me stop and re-read, trying to understand the author's intent. It wasn't a big problem, and I still rate this book highly because of its content and can't-put-it-down factor, but if this book gets re-issued, I hope it'll go through another edit to smooth out those parts that jerk the reader out of the story.
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