It was the 14th of April 1944, a seismograph in the meteorological department in Shimla captured tremors that emanated 1,700 km away. But these tremors had nothing to do with moving tectonic plates. It was caused by one of the worst explosions on the eastern docks of Bombay. Hundreds died and a large chunk of the city’s eastern seaboard was destroyed. Known as the S.S. Fort Stikine explosion, this was one of the worst fire disasters in Indian history. The disaster was a result of a series of catastrophic mistakes, which culminated in tragedy.
On February 24th, 1944, as World War II raged across Europe and Asia, a cargo ship, the S.S. Fort Stikine, set sail from Birkenhead, England bound for Bombay. It was a floating bomb. Onboard were 1396 tons of war ammunition, flares and signal rockets, incendiary bombs, mines, shells and torpedoes, all bound for Bombay, for use by the British Indian army.
As if this cargo wasn’t dangerous enough on its own, the ship also carried 8,700 bales of raw cotton, 1000 barrels of lubricating oil along with an assorted cargo of fish manure, resin, rice, scrap iron, sulfur, and timber, which got loaded on at Karachi. Seeing the cargo list, the ship’s commander, Captain Alexander Naismith had gone on record with his protest. He described the cargo as ‘just about everything that will either burn or blow up’. But his warning fell on deaf ears. He was told that the ship would have to take this cargo to Bombay at any cost. The only concession he got when he put his foot down and refused to load an additional batch of 750 drums of highly flammable turpentine!
Perhaps one of the other reasons his British bosses were keen that the ship S.S. Fort Sticking make the journey was because deep in the holds of the ship were 31 crates of gold bars, worth millions of dollars, being sent to India, by the British government to ‘stabilize’ the rupee.
On the early morning of 12th April 1944, S.S. Fort Stikine arrived in the Bombay harbor and docked at the Victoria Dock near Mazagaon. The ship was not flying the red flag, a common practice to indicate ‘dangerous cargo’, to prevent it from becoming a target of enemy attacks during wartime. For almost 48 hours, the ship waiting for its cargo to be unloaded and when work finally began, it was the fish manure that was unloaded first!
By the afternoon of 14th April, all the laxity ended in a tragedy. Around 12.30 pm, as preparations began to offload the explosives, officers from neighboring ships saw smoke rising from one of the holds of S.S. Fort Stikine. Thinking that the ship’s crew was dealing with it, no one raised an alarm. The crew itself was oblivious to the smoke. It was only around 1.45 pm, almost an hour later, that the S.S Fort Stikine’s crew realized there was a fire on board. The firefighting equipment on board was deployed and the fire services at the Bombay harbor were notified.
At first, the ship’s crew could not detect from where the smoke was coming and so began blindly pumping water into the hold. There was no one in command. Records claim that the ship’s crew – the port officials, the firemen and the British army representatives (in charge of the ammunition) were just arguing. The situation went from bad to worse and seeing that the ammunition had begun to catch fire, final orders were sent to abandon the ship.
However, around 4.06 pm, just as the crew was preparing to abandon the ship, a massive explosion tore through the ship. This was followed by a second explosion sometime later. When the few survivors opened their eyes, they could not believe what they were seeing. It was like a scene from Armageddon.
The blasts were so powerful that it lifted the 7142 ton Fort Stikine hundreds of feet above sea level and brought it crashing down. The force of the explosion destroyed 13 other ships in the vicinity, which began exploding like dominoes. One small vessel was lifted from the sea and lodged on the roof of a warehouse! The clock tower of the Bombay port stopped at 4.06 pm – the exact moment when the first explosion took place.
The explosion also carried death and destruction across Bombay. There are tragic eyewitness accounts of people, being decapitated by flying shrapnel, which left their companions unharmed. Some were hit by burning iron, others by shards of glass, and some even by the gold bricks flung by the explosion. The burning bales of cotton were thrown over houses, offices, and warehouses setting them on fire. Almost the entire seaboard of Mumbai city was extensively damaged.
The death toll was between 800-1200 people, with thousands of other injured. Not only were the tremors of the blasts felt as far as Shimla, but there were also other tragic repercussions on the other end of India as well. Around 50,000 tonnes of food grain, headed as relief for the Bengal famine was destroyed in the explosion, adding to the tragedy there.
The cleanup operations began soon after, and more than 5,00,000 tonnes of debris was removed to put the Bombay port back in business. An investigation committee which in the explosion concluded that it was an accident and ruled out sabotage.
Today, a memorial stands outside Mumbai Fire Brigade headquarters, in memory of the 66 firemen who died in the explosion. And every year the 14th April is commemorated as ‘Fire Services day’ in their honor.
Meanwhile, the gold bricks from Fort Stikine, which were flung across the city, are still being discovered. As late as 2011, workers dredging the sea discovered gold bricks from the SS Fort Stikine.
DID YOU KNOW?
It is an eery coincidence, but the Titanic sank on 14th April 1912, the same date as the Fort Stikine explosion, which happened on 14th April 1944, exactly 32 years later!
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