April 14

This Day in History

Disaster

Apr 14, 1944:

Explosion on cargo ship rocks Bombay, India

The cargo ship Fort Stikine explodes in a berth in the docks of Bombay, India, killing 1,300 people and injuring another 3,000 on this day in 1944. As it occurred during World War II, some initially claimed that the massive explosion was caused by Japanese sabotage; in fact, it was a tragic accident.

The Fort Stikine was a Canadian-built steamship weighing 8,000 tons. It left Birkenhead, England, on February 24 and stopped in Karachi, Pakistan, before docking at Bombay. The ship was carrying hundreds of cotton bales, gold bullion and, most notably, 300 tons of trinitrotoluene, better known as TNT or dynamite. Inexplicably, the cotton was stored one level below the dynamite, despite the well-known fact that cotton bales were prone to combustion.

In the middle of loading, smoke was seen coming from the cotton bales and firefighters were sent to investigate. However, emergency measures, such as flooding that part of the ship, were not taken. Instead, about 60 firefighters tried to put out the fire with hoses throughout the afternoon. Unfortunately, the TNT was not unloaded during the firefighting efforts.

Eventually, the firefighters were ordered off the ship but kept dousing the fire from the docks. Their efforts were in vain; the TNT was ignited, and at 4:07 p.m., the resulting explosion rocked the bay area. The force of the blast actually lifted a nearby 4,000-ton ship from the bay onto land. Windows a mile away were shattered. A 28-pound gold bar from the Fort Stikine, worth many thousands of dollars, was found a mile away. Everyone in close vicinity of the ship was killed.

Twelve other ships at the docks were destroyed and many more were seriously damaged. Fires broke out all over the port, causing further explosions. Military troops were brought in to fight the raging fires and some buildings were demolished to stop it from spreading. The main business center of Bombay was not safe for three days after the explosion.

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