The Day Bombay Blew Up
Seventy-eight years ago this month occurred a great explosion in Bombay harbour that killed hundreds and imperilled the city. An RD Classic from April 1985
Friday, 14 April 1944, was a pleasant spring day in Bombay, then a vital supply blaze for the planned invasion of Japan. The harbour was jammed with ships ofevery Allied flag. Western and Asiantroops throng the city buying coloured silk, sarees, ivory elephants and incense sticks for souvenirs. In the dockside district, people were carrying on their everyday activities.
At 12:30 by the clock in the harbour tower, the dock workers stopped for lunch. On a Norwegian merchant ship,the Belray, Able Seaman Roy Hayward,going below, noticed what looked like a whisper of smoke coming from a ventilator of the Fort Stikine. This was a 7,200-tonne cargo vessel, which lay in the adjoining dock. She had left Liverpool seven weeks earlier, loaded with ammunition and explosives, airplanes, stores and £2 million of worth of gold bars intended to help stabilize the rupee.
At 1:30 p.m. The dock workers returned to the Fort Stikine. As they entered Number Two hold, they saw smoke coming from the port side nearest the quay. The stevedores scrambled up from the hold shouting, “Fire!”
Men from a Bombay fire-brigade pump on the quay promptly ran with their hoses to the ship. Not until their section leader was on board, however,did he remember that, for a fire in a ship carrying explosives, his instructions were to send an immediate Number Two alarm, which would call out a large force. With orders to dial 290, his sub-lead-er struggled back down the gangway,now crowded with dock workers pushing to get ashore, and dashed to a telephone. But the telephone had no dial.Confused, he ran 160 metres along the dockside, broke the glass of a fire alarm and rang the bell. Thus the fire brigade control room received only a normal call for two pumps. The hands of the harbour clock tower stood at 2:16 p.m.
The Fort Stikine was a 120-metre floating bomb—a bomb with the fuse lit. The aeroplanes in her cargo, most of the stores and some of the ammunition and explosives had been unloaded at Karachi. There she had taken on 8,700 bales of cotton and quantities of lubricating oil, timber, sulphur, fish, manure and resin. The cargo turned out to be a treacherous mixture. Oil, cotton, timber,sulphur and resin burn freely. Fish stinks.
Because of the stink, the master of the Fort Stikine, Captain A. J. Naismith, told the dockers at Bombay to unload the fish first. When the fire broke out among the cotton bales, they still had 170 cubic metres of timber on top of them. Above the timber from the ‘tween decks to the deck, the upper part of Number Two hold was packed with explosives. Below the cotton lay a thick layer of ammunition.
Eight minutes after receiving the alarm, the fire station officer arrived with two pumps. He sent an immediate call to the control room. Eight more pumps and an emergency tender turned out. At 2:35 p.m., Norman Coombs, chief of the Bombay fire brigade, arrived. Dressed in a suit, he had had no time to change into a uniform.
In the meantime, Captain B. T. Oberst,an ordnance officer, rushed on board and secured a plan of the ship stowage.Then he hurried to Captain Naismith:“You have enough explosives here to blow up the whole of the docks,” he said.“The only way out is to scuttle the ship.”Coombs joined Oberstin his plea for scuttling,but Colonel J. R. Sadler,general manager of the docks, disagreed. He told Naismith that the only safe action was to take the ship out to sea:there was only a metre between her keel and the harbour bed, a distance so short that the water would not cover even the lower part of Number Two hold.Captain Naismith, confused by conflicting advice, made no decision except to try to get in touch with Lloyd’s surveyor.
For nearly an hour, the firemen poured water into the burning ship. During this time, most of the dockside workers were unconcernedly about their jobs. The Fort Stikine did not display the red flag indicating that she carried explosives.She sounded no warning blasts at anytime. A sailor on the Japalanda, which lay astern of the Fort Stikine, grew so bored watching the firefighting that he went below to read.
But at last one onlooker saw trouble ahead. Abel Seaman Roy Hayward, on the Belray had fought fires in the London blitz. He saw the flames from the Fort Stikine turn a yellow-brown colour, and a phrase from his old fire-service drill book leapt to his mind. “Yellow-brown fire—explosives!” He shouted to his comrades, “Down!”and fell on his face in Belray’s gunpit.
Suddenly, a huge blaze rode up from the Fort Stikine, a flaring Roman candle reaching beyond the top of the mast. A moment later came a shattering explosion.
JOURNEY OF MERCY
All over Bombay,buildings shook, windows were smashed, debris and blazing cotton fell in a rain of fire over sheds and ships. Of the firemen scrambling from the Fort Stikine, 66 were killed outright and 83 injured. The blast created a tidal wave which hurled the 5,000 tonne, 120–metre-long Japalanda from her berth and lifted her bow some 18 metres into the air to come to rest on the roof of a dockside shed.The explosion played capricious tricks. White-hot metal, flung haphazard into the town, picked out victims at random. Captain Sydney Kielly, strolling with the friend, was cut in half by a piece of metal plate. His friend was unhurt.
On the dock. C. W. Stevens, a marine surveyor, was talking with Captain Naismith and Chief Officer Henderson of the Fort Stikine. Stevens was flung along the quayside. After the blast swept over him, he stood up to find himself blackened and naked. Nobody sawNaismith and Henderson again. Nearly a kilometre and a half from the docks, D.C. Motiwala was sitting on his third-floor verandah. A bar of gold crashed through the roof and lay on the verandah floor.
Meanwhile, on the Belray, Able Seaman Hayward made his way from the gunpit to the boat deck strewn with the injured and dying. He picked up a man who had lost a leg, carried him down the gangway and went back for others.Time after time he made his awful journey of mercy, placing the injured on the ground between two intact walls where they would be relatively safe from the continual bursts of ammunition.
The last man was an Indian seaman who had lost both his legs. Hayward picked him up and carried him towards a small car on the quay. He had just reached the car when, from the red glow inside the pall of smoke that hit the Fort Stikine,there came a second roar, far greater than the first.Hayward bundled the man underneath the car, then pushed under as far as he could himself, lying there until the hail of fragments ended. Then he put the man into the car and saw him off to hospital. Whereas the first explosion had burst sideways, losing some of its shock in the water and the quay-side sheds, the second bore straight up, bringing flaming metal, timbers and cotton to a height of 1,000 meters. At the top of its trajectory, the mass mushroomed and fell over an area in a 90-metre radius.When the dust cleared, Norman Coombs, the fire-brigade chief, saw that the harbour was ringed with fires.
Leaving the docks to the military, he ordered the remnant of his forces into the residential district where houses were now beginning to burn.
The human toll of the second blast was frightful. In two hours, St. George’sHospital took in 231 victims and treated 140 more in the casualty department.The chief operating nurse at the hospital took on some of the surgical work herself to helpthe busy doctors. After the injured came the dead. By Sunday morning, the hospital mortuary was packed to the ceiling with corpses.Hundreds of bodies were never recovered.
The work of rescue, fire-fighting and salvage went on for days. In a city where communal tensions ran high, (only a few weeks earlier, Bombay had been the scene of bitter rioting), men of all nations joined in the common effort.
British and Indian soldiers, RAF men and Allied servicemen moved 39,398 cases of ammunition weighing up to 52 kilos each from Alexandra Dock. A party of nurses set up a first-aid post.They worked all night with only the flames to give them light. Red Crossgirls parked a mobile canteen between blazing warehouses. With ammunition exploding around them every few minutes, they stayed until every fireman and rescue worker had had a drink.
By the light of searchlights from the cruiser, HMS Sussex, soldiers, sailors and harbour officials moved 16 ships from Alexander Dock into the open sea. Seven of the ships contained cargoes of explosives. Men with no previous experience handled the tugs. This delicate operation took 19 hours, but the amateur pilots did not lose a single ship.
When the damage was added up, it was found that all 27 ships in the two docks were sunk,burnt out or badly damaged. Three swing bridges over the entrances to thedocks were blown partly from their seatings. The entrance to Victoria Dock was fouled by a 500-tonneship sunk inside and a 300-tonne waterboat sunk outside, and the gateway itself was blocked by a mound of tangled masts and rigging. All the dock buildings were gaunt heaps of rubble. Some 6,000 Indian and 2,000 British servicemen worked night and day for six months moving a million tonnes of debris to get the harbour working again.
What caused the disaster? A commission of inquiry appointed soon after the explosion concluded that the fire was an accident that has most probably been caused by someone smoking in Fort Stikine’s Number Two hold. 14 April is now observed in India as Fire Services Day.