The Bombay Explosion (or Bombay Docks Explosion) occurred on April 14, 1944, in the Victoria Dock of Bombay (now Mumbai) when SS Fort Stikine carrying a mixed cargo of cotton bales, gold, ammunition including around 1,400 tons of explosive caught fire and was destroyed in two giant blasts, scattering debris, sinking surrounding ships and killing around 800 people.The SS Fort Stikine was a 7142 gross ton freighter built in 1942 in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, under a lend-lease agreement.
Sailing from Birkenhead on February 24 via Gibraltar, Port Said and Karachi, she arrived at Bombay on April 12.
The ship carried
- raw cotton bales
- oil barrels
- scrap iron
- gold bullion in 12.73 kg bars valued at £1–2 million.
One officer described the cargo as “just about everything that will either burn or blow up”. The vessel berthed and was still awaiting unloading on April 14.
- In the mid-afternoon around 14.00, the crew were alerted to a fire onboard.
- Burning somewhere in the No. 2 hold, the crew, dockside fire teams and fireboats were unable to extinguish the conflagration, despite pumping over 900 tons of water into the ship, or find the source due to the dense smoke.
- At 15.50 the order to abandon ship was given, and sixteen minutes later there was a great explosion, cutting the ship in two and breaking windows over 12 km away.
- The two explosions were powerful enough to be recorded by seismographs at the Colaba Observatory in the city.
- Around two square miles were ablaze in an 800-metre arc around the ship, eleven neighbouring vessels were sunk or sinking, and the emergency personnel at the site suffered heavy losses.
- Attempts to fight the fire were dealt a further blow when a second explosion from the ship swept the area at 16.34.
- It was that time of World War II when Japan was advancing fast and had almost reached Burma. An attack on India was highly expected any time. Away from the docks, people suspected a Japanese attack and many fled the city.
- It took three days to bring the fire under control, and later 8,000 men toiled for seven months to remove around 500,000 tons of debris and bring the docks back into action.
- The official death toll was 740, including 476 military personnel, with around 1,800 people injured; unofficial tallies run much higher.
- In total, twenty-seven other vessels were sunk or damaged in both Victoria dock and the neighbouring Prince’s Dock.
- Many families lost all their belongings and were left with just the clothes on their back.
- The government took full responsibility for the disaster and monetary compensation was paid to citizens who made a claim for loss or damage to property.
- During normal dredging operations carried out periodically to maintain the depth of the docking bays one or two gold bars were found intact sporadically as late as the 1970s and returned to the British government.
- Once in every few years, gold bricks are recovered from Mumbai harbour, reminding everyone of the great tragedy, even after six decades of the incident.
- Mumbai Fire Brigade’s headquarters at Byculla has a memorial built in the memory of numerous fire fighters who died during this explosion.