Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Rain of Fire and Gold

Every city has its own history, and the history of each city is marked by a catalytic event, just as each ones life has a certain central event around which it is organized. For New York, it is now the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. For the Mumbai of my time, it is the floods on July 26th and then the terrorist attacks in 2008. But there was an earlier trauma in the psychic life of the city, which marked the before and after for old-timers..

Fort Stikine

"This is not acceptable", protested Alexander Naismith, "Such a mixture of Cargo is nothing short of suicide". But the authorities were reluctant and Capt Naismith had no choice but to follow the orders. It was after all a time of war. And so it was not within his rights to refuse this mixture of cargo. He had to bow to the inevitable.

The world was at war in 1944. The Japanese had already crossed into India from Burma, and the British government was directing all efforts into holding them back. The war also had an adverse effect on the British economy. The demand for supplies was also at its peak, be it war material or food.

The city of Bombay, was the jewel in the crown of the British empire. The city of 7 islands had become an important trading center in the east. When the Suez Canal opened, the trade via Bombay boomed, so with it, its importance as well.

The SS Fort Stikine was in the second year of its service. It had left from Birkenhead and was on its way to Karachi. The cargo in carried ranged from, spit fires, lubricant oil,timber etc. It also had gold bars worth £2 million, sold by the Bank of England to the Government of India, which was intended to help stabilize the Indian rupee which had crumbled due to the war. There were 31 wooden crates, each crate containing four bars of gold, and each bar weighing 28 pounds, but the most importantly ,it carried 1395 tons of explosives. On its way to Karachi, it barely survived a raid by German focke-wulf's. Throughout the voyage, the subject of the dangerous cargo was banned among the crew.

Altaf was a 37 year old man living with his wife and children in Bombay. He had shifted to Bombay from his village 7 years ago, in the hope of finding a job and feeding his family. He worked as a clerk in a school and managed to collect enough money to buy space in a chawl near Back bay. Like Altaf, there were lakh's of others  from various parts of India who had come to Bombay for a better living and more opportunities.

In Karachi, the Fort Stikine had unloaded some creates gliters and spitfires and the empty spaces filled with iron scrap, fish manure and rice. This sort of Cargo one has to accept but then the ship was even loaded with lubricating oil, bales of raw cotton, sulphur and risen. This inflammable material along with the explosives was just not acceptable to Capt Naismith. "Did you forget?  This is wartime, there are no excuses" said the authorities. For all he knew, such a cargo was seldom,if ever exported. But the transportation of cotton though sea route was inevitable for the merchants as during that  time, the transport of cotton from Punjab and Sindh to Bombay was banned. "This is just about everything that would either burn or blow up " said the captain. The deck officers voiced their concerns over the stowage of cotton with lube oil in the same hold as explosives but couldn't find any reference books on the ship or ashore and so it was with a great deal of misgivings that the cargo was loaded The entire crew were not to talk about it, and on 9th April First Stikine headed to its next destination, the port of Bombay.

Burjorji Motiwala was a 70 year old retired Parsee Civil Engineer residing in Bombay. He lived in his third floor appartment in Kukana House in Girgaum, South Bombay. The Parsees were immigrants from Persia who fled the arab invasion in the 16th century in order to keep their religion of Zoroastrianism alive. Many of the Parsis had immigrated to Bombay, and played an important role in the city affairs for many years.

Position of Ships Before Explosion

Three days later, on the 12th of April 1944, the SS Fort Stikine reached the port of Bombay. No-one within the dock area was aware of her dangerous cargo because the flying of the 'Red Flag' had been discontinued for the duration of the war,as the ships flying the flag were always the 'Target Ship' in the event of an air raid. Under normal conditions ships carrying explosives were not allowed alongside other ships and were discharged into lighters,however because of the war this prohibition had also been lifted. At the time, explosives were graded as Category A, B, or C. Category A explosives, were the most dangerous. The SS Fort Stikine , along with all the other cargo, carried 1395 tons of Category A explosives. Unloading began by Indian stevedores on the same day itself, first the fish manure because the stench had plagued the crew ever since Karachi, then some of the timber and scrap iron. It was not until the following morning that the foreman of stevedores was told about the explosives. The less sensitive categories, B and C, could be unloaded straight on to the dock. Category A were only allowed to be offloaded onto lighters, and not directly to the quayside. But the lighters did not come alongside until midday just before the lunch break and in the afternoon only half the stevedores worked on the explosives. The result was that by Friday the 14th most of Category A was still in the hold.

On 14th April 1944 around 12.30 p.m. smoke was noticed coming from a ventilator of the Stikine. As people saw the smoke billowing, they immediately called for help. Capt. Brimley Thomas Oberst, an Ordnance Officer in the British Army and in-charge of ammunition and explosives at the Bombay Docks, was informed of the ship on fire and he rushed to the site, at the same time Fire engines from the Carnac Bunder Fire Station were charging on their way towards the dock.It was now a race against time, unfortunately for them, they were unaware that the ship had explosives on it.

 Norman Coombs, Chief of the Bombay Fire Brigade, was in his office listening to the radio, as he always did during his free time. "Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic" said the announcer, "The luxury liner which had been declared "unsinkable" was carrying more than 2,200 passengers and crew on its maiden voyage to America. As the ship sank off the coast of Newfoundland, 1,500 passengers perished and only 711 survived." At around the same moment, Norman Coombs received call about a fire on a ship at Victoria Docks, it was an emergency said the caller, Norman immediately left for the docks in his slacks and jacket. He had had no time to change into his uniform.

Capt. Oberst, rushed on board to meet Capt. A.J. Naismith,"There is enough explosives here to blow up the whole of the docks," he said. The Bombay Fire Brigade section leader realized only while on the deck that the ship was carrying explosives and immediately hurried to make a call for more back up and more pumps. "The only way out was to scuttle the ship" Said Capt. Oberst. However when consulting the Chief Engineer, the plan was disagreed and suggested that the only safe action was to take the Stikine out to sea.Colonel J.R. Sadler the docks General Manager agreed to this,he wanted no harm to the docks. However the ships engine was disabled due to the repair work and the only way Stikine could vacate the dock was with the assistance of tugs, which were not available at that point of time. 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. Fort Stikine was destined to blow up. As for the captain, he still believed his ship could still be saved.

When Norman Coombs arrived, thirty-two hoses had already poured 900 tons of water. He tried to assess where the origin of the fire was from the deck, but the smoke and the heat made it an impossible task. Captain Naismith wanted to save his ship, Sadler his docks and Coomb's wanted Stikine to stay where she was so his crew could concentrate on extinguishing the fire. Oberst however doubted that none of the men could comprehend what was about to happen, for in his opinion, he was sure that the ship was about to blow up any moment.. Meanwhile, crowds of sightseers were gathering at the dockside in blissful ignorance that at any moment the ship might blow up. There was still no red flag at the mast that might have warned them.Around this time there was a sudden belch of yellowish black smoke and flames started to lick round the. hatch coaming. The fire fighters fell back, then with great courage surged forward, grabbed their hoses again and played the jets towards the ammunition boxes. But it was too late. The order to abandon the ship was given.

The city of Bombay was going about its afternoon business. Office goers were returning to their place of work after lunch, and getting down to their routine. Ladies were shopping near the Crawford Market. Children were busy at study in their schools. At 4.06 p.m. the S.S. Fort Stikine exploded

Picture of the harbor after the first explosion

The clock in the Dock Yard Tower was stopped when the first explosion occurred, and remained so for many months. Oberst was flung up in the air by the blast and landed on a pile of dunnage, as he surveyed the scene around him in the gloom he observed bodies lying all around, most with their skin burnt off. Of the firemen in the immediate vicinity forty were killed outright. Fort Stikine was blown in two and her boiler, still intact was found a half mile away.A huge tidal wave swept across the dock and ripped ships from their moorings At 4.33p.m. as Coombs stared across the dock surveying the scene of destruction the second explosion occurred.. This time much much powerful..

At Shimla, a city located at a distance of over 1700 km from Bombay, Sensors recorded that the earth trembled. The seismographs at the Colaba Observatory began showing readings. The sound of explosions was heard as far as 50 mi (80 km) away. Flaming drums of oil shot up into the air. Blazing cotton bales followed and came down on neighbouring ships pouring fire, igniting warehouses and buildings in Bombay city. The 11 other ships in the docks were reduced to scrap iron, which in turn devastated 300 acres of the dock itself. Docks were gutted. Fragments of blazing steel, weighing up to 100 tons, travelled laterally at incredible speed, spreading death and destruction on the way. It seemed all hell was let loose in Bombay.

People searching for cover after the second explosion
Altaf was at his job in school, when suddenly the tremor shook him of the ground, as did it with everyone, in a matter of seconds, the roof next to him collapsed and down came a huge peice of metal shard. Crashing the floor on its way. The children and the staff all began making their way out. As Altaf came across the street, he looked to the direction of the smoke, bellowing on the skyline of the city, everyone on the streets were running away from it, trying to get as far as possible,searching for cover as debris from the skies came crashing down killing people at random, but Altaf in a state of panic, ran towards the direction of the fire, he lived there and he has his family to save.

In that split second almost everything around a mile away was devastated.Flaming oil drums and blazing cotton bales shot up, then fell on ships, sheds and houses to start yet more fires. Of twenty-four ships in or near the Victoria Dock eleven were set on fire and four sunk or badly damaged. A further 25 firemen had been killed in the second explosion with 83 injured leaving the fire brigade all but decimated. Many people were killed outside the dock area by falling shrapnel and shells which exploded on impact, many buildings collapsed and others were set on fire. Buildings as far as Dadar shook and swayed. Partitions in offices came crashing down. Glass windowpanes were shattered and slashed people to pieces. Hot metal from several ships had flown more than a mile and slashed pedestrians into two. People were lifted off their feet and deposited elsewhere.

Position of Ships after explosion

The explosion produced many freak effects,The sky over Bombay was filled with gold and silver, masonry, bricks, steel girders, and human limbs and torsos, flying through the air as far as Crawford Market. A jeweler was sitting in his office in Jhaveri Bazaar when a bar of solid gold crashed through the roof and arrived in front of him. A steel girder flew through the air and crashed through the roof of Victoria Terminus, the main train station. A plate of iron landed on a horse and neatly decapitated the animal. Stray limbs and fragments of bodies were blown all over the docks..White-hot metal picked out victims at random. Captain Sidney Kielly, strolling with a friend, was cut in half by a piece of metal-plate. His friend was unhurt. Buildings were ablaze, trapping men, women and children in their homes.

Mr Motiwala, was at home when the earth beneath him shook, he suddenly heard something smash through the corrugated iron roof, bounce through his living-room and end up with a clang against the balcony. When he picked it up he found it was a gold bar.

The total number of lives lost in the explosion is estimated at more than 800, although some estimates put the figure around 1,300. More than 500 civilians lost their lives,and a further 2,408 were injured many of them residing in adjoining slum areas, but as it was wartime, information about the full extent of the damage was partially censored. In all some 50,000 tons of shipping was destroyed with a further 50,000 tons severely damaged.  Some of the gold disintegrated. Some of it melted. Some of it sank. Some of it flew high up in the air and landed in people’s homes, making them rich overnight.

Altaf ran  as fast as he could, pushing away people in his way and trying to avoid those running in the opposite direction, jumping past the fallen debris, As he moved nearer , he felt the heat growing stronger, When he finally arrived at the entrance of the colony, all he could see was a giant burning blaze towering high, blocking the entrance and burning everything past it.. Altaf could go no further..

The exact cause of the Bombay Explosion will never be known for sure, although many different theories exist some say that the initial fire was due to the cargo of cotton bales which had been loaded at Karachi. Cotton is capable of bursting into flames all on its own and it is possible that just such a "spontaneous combustion" was the cause of the fire which led to the two terrible explosions aboard Fort Stikine. Others talk of a fallen cigarette that was lit on board by a stevedore, Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that the Bombay Explosion was one of the greatest disasters of the Twentieth Century. The Bars of gold from the ship were being found as late as the 2011, But there was a mountain of more base debris from the explosion, and the British municipal authorities chose to create land out of it. They started filling in the Back Bay, where the mangroves used to be, cement over the debris and the land was reclaimed, in what is now know as Nariman Point.

Burjorji Motiwala took the gold, valued at Rs. 90,000 in those days to the Police. For his honesty, he was given a reward of Rs. 999. But the Parsi donated the amount to the Bombay Explosion Relief Fund.

2)The Great Bombay Explosion- Lawrence Wilson
3)Explosion in Bombay-Merchant Navy Officers
4)Maximum City-Suketu Mehta
5)Godrej Magzine

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