Sitting on a Keg of Dynamite
Father Bill, Texas City, and a Disaster Foretold
Published by: University of Oklahoma Press
Imprint: University of Oklahoma Press
260 Pages | 6 x 9 | 25 b&w illus., 3 maps
Through extensive archival research and oral interviews, Phillips pieces together previously unknown details of Father Bill’s story to present a well-rounded portrait of the man who is today revered as a hero. Born in Philadelphia, Roach attended seminary in Arkansas before he went on to serve as parish priest for St. Mary of the Miraculous Medal in Texas City. Restless, energetic, and beloved for his humor, tolerance, and empathy, Father Bill was an outspoken advocate for poor and working-class citizens, fair wages, and workplace safety.
One evening, as Phillips vividly recounts, Roach sat on the church steps, looking out at the strange orange-yellow light created by hydrocarbon gas flares emerging from nearby oil refineries. “I feel like I’m sitting on a keg of dynamite,” he told parishioners who were passing by. His premonition proved prophetic. When a fire erupted onboard the Grandcamp, Father Bill hurried to the docks to lend assistance. It was then that the ship detonated.
There is still much to be learned from the Texas City disaster—and from the legacy of Father Bill, an early crusader for social justice in America. Descendants of the disaster victims received financial reparations, and yet, as Phillips cautions, safety and environmental regulations barely exist in Texas today, particularly when it comes to the petrochemical industry. Sitting on a Keg of Dynamite serves as a cautionary tale for Texans—and all Americans—as environmental accidents continue to threaten our safety.
“A compelling biography of Father Bill Roach, a remarkable priest whose dramatic life intersected with the urbanization, industrialization, racism, and labor exploitation that marked Texas life as the state transitioned from its agricultural past. Phillips paints a picture of a passionate man committed to economic justice, a tireless cleric who sensed impending doom but remained an unflappable idealist.”—Michael Phillips, author of White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001