Explosion of the Fort Stikine Part 1

About the explosion of the Fort Stikine in Bombay harbor in 1944, the history of the disaster of the English cargo ship that left over 1,000 people dead.


The 7,142-ton cargo vessel Fort Stikine left England in the month of February, 1944, carrying pound 2 million worth of gold bars, explosives, airplanes, and ammunition. At Karachi a part of its cargo of airplanes and ammunition was exchanged for sulfur, resin, oil, fish, and 8,700 bales of cotton. In the harbor of Bombay, the supply base for the planned Allied invasion of Japan, a fire broke out in its number 2 hold. Red flags, required to indicate explosive cargo, were not in evidence. A series of errors in judgment resulted in one of the worst disasters during W. W. II.

When: Shortly after 3:30 P.M. on April 14, 1944.

Where: In the harbor of Bombay, India.

The Loss: Incomplete death count, 1,500; 3,000 injured. 100,000 tons of Allied shipping destroyed, valued at above $1 billion.

The Cause: In April, 1944, Bombay harbor, gateway to India, was a crowded parking lot of Allied ships. Troops of many nations wandered about the city, shopping like souvenir-hungry tourists. Coolie dock workers kept one eye on the clock. At exactly 12:30 they broke for lunch. Aboard the Belray, seaman Roy Howard saw smoke coming from a ventilator on the Fort Stikine. No report was made.

Stevedores returning to the Fort Stikine at 1:30 found the number 2 hold filled with smoke and scrambled deckside screaming, "Fire!" The wharf-stationed fire brigade boarded the ship, but did nothing while their leader ran from the ship to phone for reinforcements. Unable to operate the dialless telephone on the wharf he set off a fire-alarm box. The time was 2:16 P.M. At 2:25 a fire station officer arrived with 2 pumps, then immediately left the ship to phone for more men and more pumps. Ten minutes later Chief Norman Coombs of the Bombay fire brigade arrived.

In the meantime, the stench of burning fish prompted the ship's captain, A. J. Naismith, to order the fish removed. With this activity going on, ordnance officer Capt. B. T. Oberst came on board with a copy of the Fort Stikine's stowage plan in his hand. Confronting Naismith he advised that the ship be scuttled. They were joined by dock manager Col. J. R. Sadler, who remainded them the harbor was too shallow to scuttle a cargo ship and suggested the Fort Stikine steam out to sea. Confused with contradictory suggestions, Naismith left the group to phone his ship's insurer for advice.

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