Little Bits of History

Too Early for July Fourth

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 14, 2012

SS Fort Stikine before the explosion.

April 14, 1944: The SS Fort Stikine explodes. The ship was at Victoria Dock of Bombay (now Mumbai) in India. She was a freighter built in 1942 in British Columbia and named for an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company (now located in Wrangell, Alaska). She sailed from Birkenhead on February 24 and arrived at Bombay on April 12. She carried a mixed bag of goods: Spitfires, raw cotton, timber, scrap iron, gold bullion (valued at £1-2 million or £100-200 million today), explosives and munitions.

At around 2 PM the crew of the freighter was called to put out a fire in the No. 2 hold. They were helped in their fire suppression efforts by dockside fire teams and fireboats. Even with pumping over 900 tons of water into the ship, the fire burned. Thick smoke prevented the men aboard ship from finding the exact source. They were ordered to abandon ship at 3:50 PM. At 4:06 a great explosion cut the ship in two and broke windows in buildings up to 7.5 miles from the site. A second explosion followed at 4:34 and the two explosions were so powerful they showed up on seismographs at the Colaba Observatory. The blasts spread into a half-mile arc and destroyed eleven other vessels in the area.

It took three days to get the fires under control. It took a further seven months with 8,000 men working to restore the docks and remove ≈ 500,000 tons of debris. The waters of the bay were initially solid with floating detritus. The Victoria and the Prince Docks were both heavily damaged.

The official death toll for the Bombay Explosion was listed at 740 – 476 of them military personnel and there were also about 1,800 people injured. However, unofficial tolls are much higher. Twenty-seven other vessels were sunk or damaged in the explosion or resulting fires. Many families living near the docks lost everything in the disaster. The British government took full responsibility and paid monetary compensation to all who made a claim for lost or damaged property. The dock areas need dredging to maintain adequate depth for ships. As late as the 1970s, bars of gold bullion would sporadically turn up as they dredged. These were returned to the British government.

A small spark neglected has often kindled a mighty conflagration. – Quintus Curtius

From little spark may burst a mighty flame. – Dante Alighieri

Fire and gunpowder do not sleep together. – proverb

Your own property is concerned when your neighbor’s house is on fire. – Horace

Also on this day:

“I’m the King of the World!” – In 1912, RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg.
Westward, Ho! – In 1846, the Donner Party began their trek west.
Black Sunday – In 1935, the dust bowl got a lot dustier.

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