In a letter dated April 18, 1944, Indira Gandhi described the explosions to her father from the hill station of Matheran, over 80 km away. It was afternoon and she was reading a book when the building began shaking and the windows and doors rattling. The rumbling stopped for a few minutes before beginning again, leading her to assume it was an earthquake. She noted the time of the first explosion at a few minutes past 4 pm. The letter, included in the book Two Alone, Two Together, also tells us that there was no mail or newspaper the next day and she was certain that Nehru knew what had happened.
But, in fact, information was heavily curtailed at that time. The Second World War had entered its last decisive stage and the censors checked everything. It was later that Radio Saigon, a Japanese-controlled radio station, revealed what really happened. A ship called the Fort Stikine, loaded with explosives and cotton, was responsible for the event that is now called the Bombay Explosion.
The Fort Stikine was a huge Canadian-built steamship that sailed from England on February 24 loaded with Royal Air Force planes, ammunition, explosives and other stores. It also had many wooden crates, each containing four bars of gold. Each bar weighed 28 pounds and the gold, worth £2 million, was being sold by the Bank of England to the Indian Government to help stabilise the Indian rupee, since much of it had gone to finance the Indian colony’s war effort. The explosives contained in the ship weighed around 1,395 tonnes and included shells, torpedoes, mines, rockets and incendiary bombs.
The ship travelled in a convoy through the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea before docking at Karachi a month later. It was here that more than 8,000 bales of hessian-wrapped raw cotton, hundreds of drums of lubricating oil, scrap iron, timber, sulphur, rice, fish manure and resin were loaded onto it. The cotton was stored one level below the dynamite – cotton bales were prone to combustion but the ship’s officials seemed oblivious to this fact. As the Fort Stikine sailed onward to Bombay, it was already a “floating bomb”, a bomb with a fuse lit. The ship did not carry the danger flag though it was war time and this would have alerted the enemy.
When the Stikine finally reached the Victoria Docks on April 12, there were 11 other ships already berthed. The unloading work, especially of the cotton bales, was not commenced immediately. Other omissions that would prove lethal ranged from the incautious to the farcical.
A fire in the ship’s hold was first noticed at 12.30 pm. A fire officer realised that a blaze on a ship carrying explosives called for a distinct alarm, but the only telephone he found was damaged. More things went wrong. When he finally broke the glass of a fire alarm, the control room personnel read it as a normal call and deputed only two pumps. By then two hours had already elapsed. A way out was to scuttle or drown the ship, but the ship’s captain, its chief engineer and the manager in charge of the docks disagreed. The chief engineer indicated that the ship could not be sunk by flooding its holds as the valves were designed to let out water, and not to allow any water in.
The ship was destined to blow up. Sixty or more firefighters tried to put out the blaze with hoses throughout the afternoon. Nothing helped. The deck floor heated up under their feet but the water just wouldn’t reach into the ship’s hold. The firemen stood in burning water, refusing to give up the fight even when they were ordered off the ship.
Soon after the explosives caught fire and, at 4.07 pm, a massive explosion rocked the bay area. The blast flung out men on board, along with hot metal pieces large enough to slice anyone into pieces. Oil casks with fire shooting from all sides rose high into the air, as did cotton bales. This deadly cargo fell down on neighbouring ships, setting them afire, as well as the warehouses and other buildings on the docks. The Stikine was lifted up 3,000 feet. The first explosion resounded all across Bombay and beyond. The impact appeared on the seismographs located in faraway Shimla. The second explosion came half an hour later, when twice the number of explosives blew up, wreaking even more damage than the first.
As it was wartime, censorship rules meant news reporters in British India could file their reports only in the second week of May 1944. Film of the explosions and its aftermath shot by Indian cinematographer Sudhish Ghatak, a cousin of Ritwik Ghatak, was confiscated by military officers. Parts of it were shown to the public as a newsreel only much later.
All 27 ships in the two docks, Victoria and Prince, were sunk, burnt out or badly damaged in the episode, and all dock buildings were reduced to rubble. Fires broke out all over the port, causing other small blasts. Fragments of blazing steel, sometimes weighing up to 100 tonnes, flew at incredible speed, bringing more death and destruction. Author Jerry Pinto writes of a horse being decapitated as it trotted down a street in panic. All hell broke loose in Bombay that day.
The official toll was 740 dead, including 476 military people, and around 1,800 people injured. Unofficial tallies were much higher. It is never known just how many people living in the nearby slums died. Many families lost all their belongings and thousands became destitute. It was estimated that around 6,000 firms were affected and several thousand lost their jobs. The government paid compensation to citizens who made a claim for loss or damage to property.
It took three days and more for military troops to fight the raging fires. Some buildings were demolished to stop it from spreading. The Gateway of India, it was said, could have crumbled too, like other buildings nearer the scene of the explosion. Photographs show a railroad yard littered with debris and shattered wagons. Over the next three months, many ships were salvaged. Later some 8,000 men worked for seven months to remove the thousands of tonnes of debris to make the docks operational again.
The many crates of gold either disintegrated, melted or just sank. Some gold bars, in stories that have become legend, flew high in the air, with oil kegs, cotton bales and even landed in people’s homes. A bar of gold came crashing through the wall in the Girgaum house of a retired Parsi gentleman. When he returned the bar to the police, he was rewarded a sum of Rs 999, which he donated to the Relief Fund. Normal dredging operations at the docks continued to yield intact gold bars periodically, even as late as February 2011. A 45-kilogram shell that had yet to detonate was found on October 2011.
Since the explosion was mysterious in some ways, especially in its immediacy, it gave rise to many myths. One of them came from the fact that the Stikine had exploded exactly 22 years to the day the Titanic had sunk. Another myth revolved around one of India’s most popular and enduring products: The contents of the Godrej safes storing deposits of many banks remained undamaged.
As Bombay Explosion occurred during the World War II, some initially claimed that the explosion was caused by Japanese sabotage. But subsequent inquiries would reveal it was a tragic accident, one caused by several unintentional omissions. At the city fire brigade’s headquarters in Byculla, a memorial honours the 66 fighters who perished fighting the blaze. Fire Safety Week is observed all over Maharashtra from April 14 to 21 in memory of those brave firemen.