2 Massive Explosions & Blaze At Victoria Docks In 1944 Killed 521
Hands of the tower clock at the docks entrance stopped when a cargo ship from England loaded with 1,000 tonne of explosives and 124 gold bars blew up

Mohua.Das@timesgroup.com

Seventy-five years ago when the Second World War was sending shockwaves across the earth, two back to back deafening explosions on Fort Stikine, a cargo ship berthed at Victoria Docks (now called Mumbai Port Trust), flared up in a yellow brown blaze and left much of Mumbai in a smoking ruin.

This year marks 75 years since the Bombay Dock explosion of the April 14, 1944, which left 521 people dead and around 2,048 gravely injured.

The precise moment when the waterfront became a blazing inferno—4.06pm—remained etched on the face of the tower clock at the entrance of the dock for several days as the clock hands stood still while the fire spread from the docks to the neighbouring areas that caused not only an appalling loss of life but devastation in the docks and its adjoining areas. Mumbai, on account of the World War, had endured some discomfort and deprivations of the time but suddenly, without warning, witnessed the horrors of modern warfare as the ravages of the blaze carried on for a month and a half.

Fort Stikine was one of 26 identical ships, 441 feet long and 57 feet across the beam, built in Canada and ordered by the American War Shipping Department. Between 1942 and 1944, Stikine had made four voyages between European ports and United States, ferrying war stores. In February 1944, it steamed out of Birkenhead in England loaded with a curious mix of cargo for Karachi and Bombay. For Karachi, strewn on the upper deck, were gliders, fighter aircrafts, ammunition and explosives. Below that were stowed the Bombaybound 1,395 tonne of explosives and 31 wooden crates containing gold bar worth £2 million meant as an instalment repayment of Britain’s wartime debt to India.

The aircraft were unloaded in Karachi and their place was taken by raw cotton, oil drums, timbre and other items. The master of the ship is known to have protested against the loading of such hazardous cargo but in vain. On April 12, 1944, Stikine berthed at Victoria Dock. “Shapoorjee Cawasji Desai, the foreman of stevedores (dock workers), had not been briefed about the explosives and therefore had not requisitioned any barges which caused crucial delay of more than 24 hours despite the ‘Certificate of Urgency’,” says Commander Mohan Narayan, former curator of the Maritime History Society. “During the process of unloading lubricating oil and other general cargo, it came to light that the oil drums were leaking.”

When the stevedores broke for lunch at noon on April 14, no one noticed the first signs of an impending catastrophe—smoke spiralling up one of Stikine’s ventilators—until an hour went by and firemen rushed. The first big explosion was heard as far away as Santacruz. The second bang, within 25 minutes of the first, spelled death and destruction as blazing drums of oil and burning bales of cotton streaked the sky and a tidal wave caused by the blast flung a 4,000-tonne ship out of the water. Scores of buildings were gutted and people flung yards away, killed or maimed. It took eight months and 8,000 men for 500 ft of the quay to be reconstructed and more than 20 acres of devastated land to be newly paved.

“The catastrophe was also one of the earliest examples of Mumbaikars rising to the occasion in troubled times. Scores of individual acts of kindness were on display in the immediate aftermath of the explosions,” says Narayan. If Ali Mohammed Mecklai, a businessman, went around buying medicines and medical equipment to distribute at hospitals, five women of the American Red Cross set up a canteen in the middle of blazing warehouses and manned the post until every soldier had eaten.

Seven decades separate us from the disaster, commemorated every year as the Fire Services Week starting April 14, in memory of the 66 firemen who lost their lives. But beneath the ceremonies lies an uncomfortable fact that much of Mumbai continues to be a tinderbox. According to government data, more than 49,000 incidents of fire were recorded in Mumbai in the past one decade that had killed over 600 people.

PIC SHOWS IT ALL

FIRST BLAST WAS HEARD AS FAR AWAY AS SANTACRUZ

It took eight months and 8,000 men for 500 ft of the quay to be reconstructed and more than 20 acres of devastated land to be newly paved