Free Press Journal

“It was something I needed to do before I die”


Sachin Unhalekar

A 01MUMBAI: A young Anglo-Indian boy was born to a recently widowed mother in 1944 Bombay amidst the Second World War. As a child without a father, the curious boy would always question his mother about how his father died. “He died in an accident during the war,” was all she told him. In the years that followed his father’s death, his mother remarried and the family moved to England. Seventy years later, the young boy was now an old man, with a family of his own. One day, while surfing the Internet, he came across a video on YouTube that suddenly told him the truth about his father’s death.

As a fireman aboard the freighter SS Fort Stikine, his father had perished along with hundreds of people in the explosion that tore the vessel apart just off the Bombay docks on April 14, 1944. Learning that the Fire Safety Week is observed in the state of Maharashtra between April 14 and 21 in honour of the 66 firemen that died that day through a YouTube video, he asked to be invited to the event. Visiting Mumbai close to 60 years after leaving as a boy to go and live in London, Ferdinand Oswald Eugene Robert stood at the memorial bearing his father’s name, the same as his own, with tears in his eyes.

Robert, now 70, attended the memorial service marking the start of Fire Safety Week commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Bombay Docks Explosion. “When I learned how my father had died and about this annual event, I felt I had to come here even though I haven’t been to India since my family and I had left to go to England in 1951,” he told FPJ.
After watching the YouTube video, Robert wrote an email to the Maharashtra Fire Service, telling them who he was and requesting them to invite him to the memorial service. The Fire Service further delivered the message to acting chief fire officer, Sunil Nestrekar of the Mumbai Fire Brigade, who was glad to invite Robert to the event. Robert, who is named after his father, arrived in Mumbai on Sunday, and attended the memorial on Monday morning.

The Bombay Docks Explosion of 1944, was a disastrous accident in which English freighter SS Fort Stikine, that was carrying cargo including cotton bales, gold and ammunition caught fire and exploded killing around 800. The vessel set sail from Birkenhead, England on February 24 and arrived in Bombay on April 12 1944. Two days later the freighter caught fire and was destroyed in two explosions, sinking surrounding ships and killing hundreds of people including 66 of the firemen that were charged with putting out the fire. This event is commemorated every year by observing Fire Safety Week in the state.

“It was a English merchant ship,” said Robert, “but it was carrying explosives. The fire services were not told about the explosive. So by the time they got to the ship, it was too late.”

After the death of his father, Robert’s mother, who was 22 years old at the time, married his father’s older brother and left Bombay to go live in England. “When I used to ask my mother how my father died, all she would tell me was that he was in the fire brigade and that he died in the war,” Robert reminisces. “In the time after the war, there were plenty of children my age in England, who had lost their fathers in the war, so I never thought of going into the details of his death.” It was on Monday, April 14, that Robert finally knew the details of his father’s death.

Robert, having moved to Australia at the age of 26 in 1968 to pursue a career in cinema advertising, now lives there with his second wife. His father was one of ten children, of which four are still alive. His father’s older brother, his stepfather, died in 1974. His mother passed away in 1988.

Robert will turn 70, as the event is commemorated in its 70th year. “I was born on September 3 1944, six months after my father died. Today as I stood at the memorial, I felt proud that my father and fallen firemen were remembered in this way for their service,” he said, “When you get to a certain age, there are certain things that you realize you want to do before you die. I wanted to come back to Bombay for the memorial service. It was one of the things I knew I wanted to do before I die.”