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.
In the early months of 1944, when World War II had gripped Asia, the British cargo ship SS Fort Stikine was carrying tonnes of explosives, fighter aircraft and gold bullion from Birkenhead in the UK to Mumbai.
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, nor were they able to find the source due to the dense smoke. The water was boiling all over the ship, due to heat generated by the fire.
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 (7.5 mi) away. This and a later second explosion were powerful enough to be recorded by seismographs at the Colaba Observatory in the city.
Sensors recorded that the earth trembled at Shimla, a city over 1,700 km away. The shower of burning material set fire to slums in the area. Around 2 square kilometres were set ablaze in an 800 m arc around the ship.
Eleven neighbouring vessels had been sunk or were sinking, and the emergency personnel at the site suffered heavy losses. Attempts to fight the fire were dealt a further blow when the second explosion from the ship swept the area at 16:34.
Burning cotton bales fell from the sky on docked ships, the dock yard, and slum areas outside the harbour. The sound of explosions was heard as far as 80 km (50 mi) away. Some of the most developed and economically important parts of Bombay were wiped out by the blast and resulting fire.
Take this quiz to find out how much you know about what is likely the deadliest explosion that ever occurred in India:
1. What was Mumbai's population at the time?
(a) 4 million
(b) 5 million
(c) 2 million
(d) 3 million
2. What was the name of the captain of the ship that exploded?
(a) J.H. Longmire
(b) A.J. Naismith
(c) N. Coombs
(d) J. Fieldhouse
3. Where did the SS Fort Stikine dock immediately prior to Mumbai?
(b) Cape Town
4. Who was the mayor of Bombay at the time of the explosion?
(a) Yusuf J. Meherally
(b) Nagindas T. Master
(c) Joseph A. Collaco
(d) Dr. Jos. Alban D'Souza
5. Which other maritime tragedy does the 1944 Bombay explosion share a common date with?
(a) Sinking of the Bismarck
(b) Sinking of the Lusitania
(c) Exxon Valdez distaster
(d) Sinking of the Titanic
Answers: 1-c, 2-b, 3-d, 4-b, 5-d