The catastrophic explosions at Beirut port earlier this week, which have so far killed at least 150 people and injured around 5,000, bear a resemblance with an even more calamitous incident that occurred in Mumbai 76 years ago.
On April 14, 1944, a ship lying outside Mumbai’s Victoria Dock caught fire, resulting in two explosions that left around a 1,000 dead, thousands injured, and several buildings in the city destroyed. The raging inferno was visible for miles across the city, and took three days of efforts by dozens of firefighters to be doused.
The 1944 Bombay docks explosions
In the early months of 1944, when World War II had gripped Asia, the British cargo ship ‘Fort Stikine’ was carrying tonnes of explosives, fighter aircraft and gold bullion from Birkenhead in the UK to Mumbai.
En route, the Fort Stikine picked up hundreds of cotton bales from Karachi, which were stored one level below 300 tonnes of dynamite, despite the threat of combustion.
In the afternoon of April 14, when the ship was moored at Mumbai’s Victoria Dock, a fire was detected aboard, which continued to rage despite firefighting efforts. Within a few hours, the dynamite was ignited, and two massive explosions one after the other rocked Mumbai’s immediate neighbourhoods, causing one of the city’s deadliest fires.
The explosions caused 12 ships docked in the vicinity to be destroyed– the force from the blast caused one 4000-tonne ship to be flung onto land.
Everyone in close proximity was killed; the casualties have been estimated between 800 and 1,300, which included Bombay Port Trust workers, army and navy personnel, sailors and policemen.
Like in Beirut, the second explosion caused greater damage in Mumbai as well. A report by The Indian Express on April 17, 1944 reads” “The second explosion probably caused more casualties. After the first explosion scores of people made their way towards the direction from which rose thick black smoke in huge columns and were caught unawares by the second explosion. Pedestrians and sightseers were blown off their feet and motorcars overturned. An immense volume of thick black smoke that rose covered the sky.
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“The unexpected nature of the occurrence and the panic it created can well be imagined by the fact that goods left on the open roads remained untouched by thieves and robbers long afterwards,” the report stated.
Demolition squads were busy for two days after the explosions taking down badly damaged buildings and clearing affected areas.
On April 18, 1944, this paper described the situation of Mumbai’s public transport after the blast – “Thousands of office-goers in the city jammed themselves in the BB and CI (Bombay Baroda and Central India) Railway suburban trains, trams and buses to get to their work after as railway traffic between Byculla and Victoria Terminus (today’s CST) continues suspended. At almost every main bus halt stood patiently long queues of sometimes numbering over a thousand persons waiting for accommodation in the buses.”
In an editorial on April 19, 1944, The Indian Express wrote: “Thousands among Bombay’s two million population must have been rendered homeless, and hundreds of buildings and countless property must have been lost to their owners… We are told by the Food Member to the Government of India that about 55,000 tonnes of food grains have been lost in the disaster, that is about a month-and-half’s supply for Bombay city.
“The Mayor of Bombay (freedom-fighter Nagindas T Master) who has just been released from jail should exert his utmost in the formation of a citizens’ committee for rendering relief in the shape of food, clothing and good shelter… We would even suggest that, in view of the origin and the extent of the tragedy, not only the Government of India but also the British Government must give all possible help in the work of reconstruction.”
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Interestingly, the colonial government of the day had restricted press coverage after the explosions. The Indian Express editorial noted: “The authorities have meanwhile acted with realism in promptly contradicting wild and exaggerated rumours about the tragedy… We do not see however why representatives of the press should not have been invited to visit the area and see for themselves the conditions prevailing there and to supplement the brief official communiques with relevant details that might not offend the rules of security but might at the same time reassure the public that facts were not being suppressed.”
In 1968, April 14 was declared as Fire Services Day, when a memorial was built with the names of the fallen firefighters at the fire brigade headquarters in Byculla.
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