Bombay Docks Explosion

The Bombay Explosion (or Bombay Docks Explosion) occurred on 14 April 1944, in the Victoria Dock of Bombay (now Mumbai) when the 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.

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 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 six decades after 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. Fire Safety Week is observed all over Maharashtra from 14 April to 21 April in memory of Fire fighters who died in this explosion.

The local radio news indicated that the fire was first noticed on the ship by the stevedores as emanating from some bales of cotton stowed in the hold at about 9 a.m. The fire fighting equipment both on board and ashore was activated and it appeared as if the fire had been brought under control.

However, this assumption was found deceptive without realising that the initial fire had already overheated the ammunition boxes stowed below the bales of cotton. First there was a small explosion in the rear of the hold. There was panic on board and widespread commotion on keyside. More small and large explosions followed which shook the entire dock area. Some office rooms and godowns inside the docks and houses beyond the outer roads received direct hits by explosives along with gold bars flying along.