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During the Bombay Explosion!

Two unforgettable and mysterious events occurred during the 20th century:

(1) Sunday, 14 April, 1912. The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, killing 1,500.

Friday, 14 April, 1944. The S.S. Fort Stikine, a 7,142-ton cargo vessel, blew up in Victoria Dock No. 1 in Bombay. Hundreds were killed, hundreds of bodies were never recovered, 27 ships sank in two docks.

Debris from the explosion seen floating in a solid mass.

Both mysteries remain unsolved till today. Few have been witness to both these events, while many of us were witness only to the second disaster.

By an odd coincidence both events took place on 14 April and both occurred in leap years, within a short span of 32 years. Call it superstition, call it obsession, but everything seemed destined to go wrong on that fateful day of 14 April.

It was in the same year, 1912, in July, that Godrej secured the entire order for supplying 372 safes for the Post Office Savings Banks in India and Burma, after the Director General of Posts & Telegraphs, Calcutta, conducted a fire-test of safes made by different manufacturers, which only the Godrej safe successfully passed. Senior officials, including the Government chemist, were present at the test.

Again on 14 April 1944, Godrej safes alone passed the supreme test. Though battered by the devastating explosions at the Bombay docks, the contents of the safes remained intact. But more of that later.

Given the hectic pace of modern life it is difficult to find time to ponder over such events, but when something cannot be explained by either common sense or science, it makes us sit up and wonder. Both these events are amazing and remain unexplained, but they are real.

The Titanic

The luxury liner which had been declared "unsinkable" was carrying more than 2,200 passengers and crew on its maiden voyage to America. As the ship sank off the coast of Newfoundland, 1,500 passengers perished and only 711 survived.

Two years prior to the Titanicís launching, it is said that in 1910 one Douglas Murray, residing in Cairo, bought the sarcophagus containing the mummy of an Egyptian Princess from an American in Cairo. Just a few hours later, the American who sold this casket died mysteriously. Douglas Murray soon found out that the Princess, who had been a member of a powerful religious cult, had placed a curse on anyone who disturbed her final resting place. Murray paid little heed to what he was told.

A few days later while on a shooting expedition, he met with an accident, and his right arm had to be amputated from the elbow. On their way back to England, two of Murrayís friends who had accompanied him on the shooting expedition, died suddenly. Cause unknown. A few months later, two of Murrayís Egyptian workers also died in mysterious circumstances.

When Douglas Murray reflected on these sudden and sad happenings, he decided to get rid of this cursed mummy casket, and a lady offered to buy it from him. Almost immediately her mother died, and her boyfriend left her. When she, too, fell ill, her lawyer persuaded her to return the casket to Murray, who in turn presented it to the British Museum.

At the museum, a photographer and an Egyptologist both suddenly died.

Finally, a museum in New York agreed to take the casket, and it was shipped to America on the Titanic, the unsinkable ship.

The Titanic, as we all know, hit an iceberg and sank in the frigid waters of the Atlantic, taking with her the dreaded mummy casket along with many passengers and crew.

"We have struck an iceberg," was the terse wireless telegraph message the Titanic sent to its sister ship the Olympic at 11.00 p.m. on Sunday, 14 April, 1912. Twenty minutes later the Titanic sent another message: "We are putting the passengers off in small boats." Of these passengers, 711 survived.

An unforgettable day

On Friday, 14 April, 1944, when the infamous wartime ammunition explosions blew up Bombay, it was the turn of another ship, the S.S. Fort Stikine, which was berthed at No. 1 Victoria Dock.

The 7,142-ton cargo vessel had left Liverpool, England, seven weeks earlier, loaded with ammunition and explosives, stores and gold bars worth ? million, sold by the Bank of England to the Government of India, which was intended to help stabilise the Indian rupee. On this 441 feet long and 57 feet wide ship were 1,395 tons of explosives, including shells, torpedoes, mines, rockets and incendiary bombs. The ship could be called a "floating bomb", a bomb with a fuse lit.

The ship was loaded with 31 wooden crates, each crate containing four bars of gold, and each bar weighing 28 pounds.

Also, there were 8,700 bales of hessian-wrapped raw cotton, hundreds of drums of lubricating oil, scrap iron, timber, sulphur, rice, fish manure and resin. The cargo turned out to be a treacherous mixture. Oil, cotton, timber, sulphur and resin burn easily and freely. Fish stinks. It is always dangerous to store raw cotton with explosives. Most of the stores and some of the ammunition and explosives had been unloaded at Karachi, and reloaded with the inflammable bales of cotton, oil, timber and fish manure.

Along with the Fort Stikine there were 11 other ships berthed in the Victoria Dock.

At 12.30 p.m. on a Norwegian merchant ship, the Belray, Seaman Roy Hayward who had come up for a smoke noticed what looked like a wisp of smoke coming from a ventilator of the Stikine. By 1.30 p.m., other people saw the smoke billowing, but did not pay much attention.

At 1.45 p.m. Mohammed Taqi, the Foreman, saw smoke in the hold in the centre on the port side, and shouted for help. Samandar Khan, the civilian watchman on duty in Number 2 hold, also called for help at the same time.

At 2.00 p.m. Capt. Brimley Thomas Oberst, an Ordnance Officer in the British Army and in-charge of ammunition and explosives at the Bombay Docks, was informed of the ship on fire, just as Carnac Bunder Fire Station engines were charging on their way. He rushed to the site on his powerful motorcycle.

As luck would have it, the Bombay Fire Brigade section leader realised while on deck that for a fire on a ship carrying explosives he had to immediately issue a No. 2 alarm, by dialling 290, which would summon a larger force. In the chaos he struggled back down the gangway crowded with dock workers pushing to get ashore and dashed to the telephone. But the telephone had no dial. Confused, he ran along the dockside, broke the glass of a fire alarm and rang the bell, with the result that the fire brigade control room thinking it was a normal call, sent only two pumps. It was 2.16 p.m.

The city of Bombay was going about its afternoon business. Office goers were returning to their place of work after lunch, and getting down to their routine. Ladies were shopping near the Crawford Market. Children were busy at study in their schools.

Fire engines raced towards the docks, with roads being cleared for them. At 2.35 p.m. Norman Coombs, Chief of the Bombay Fire Brigade, arrived dressed in slacks and jacket. He had had no time to change into his uniform.

Capt. Oberst, the Ordnance Officer, rushed on board to Capt. A.J. Naismith, the master of Fort Stikine, with a plan of the shipís stowage. "You have enough explosive here to blow up the whole of the docks," he said. The only way out was to scuttle the ship. The Captain consulted his Chief Engineer and Col. J.R. Sadler, General Manager of the docks, who disagreed and suggested that the only safe action was to take the Stikine out to sea. The Chief Engineer indicated that the ship could not be sunk by flooding its holds as the valves were designed to let out water, and not to allow any water in. Fort Stikine was destined to blow up.

Capricious tricks

By 3.30 p.m. 32 hoses lying across the deck had poured over 900 tons of water, but to no avail. The water just kept on boiling. The brave firemen stood in scalding hot water, 4 inches deep, which bubbled over and around their feet, fighting the flames.

At 4.06 p.m. the S.S. Fort Stikine exploded, flinging out men and huge fragments of hot metal, large enough to slice men into pieces. The bad had begun, worse was to follow. Flaming drums of oil shot up into the air. Blazing cotton bales followed and came down on neighbouring ships pouring fire, igniting warehouses and buildings in Bombay city.

The 11 other ships in the docks were reduced to scrap iron, which in turn devastated 300 acres of the dock itself. Docks were gutted. Fragments of blazing steel, weighing up to 100 tons, travelled laterally at incredible speed, spreading death and destruction on the way. It seemed all hell was let loose in Bombay on that fateful day.

Shattered remains of rail cars in a dock warehouse.

Buildings shook and swayed. Partitions in offices came crashing down. Glass windowpanes were shattered and slashed people to pieces. Hot metal from several ships had flown more than a mile and slashed pedestrians into two. People were lifted off their feet and deposited elsewhere.

The explosion played capricious tricks. White-hot metal picked out victims at random. Captain Sidney Kielly, strolling with a friend, was cut in half by a piece of metal-plate. His friend was unhurt. Buildings were ablaze, trapping men, women and children in their homes.

On the dock C.W. Stevens was talking to Capt. Naismith and Chief Officer Henderson of the Fort Stikine. Stevens was flung along the quayside. After the blast swept over him, he stood up to find himself blackened and naked. Naismith and Henderson were never to be seen again.

In the midst of the devastation lay a charred fire engine and a charred helmet under which was a burnt corpse. There was total havoc.

The great clock in the docks stopped with the first explosion. It showed 4.06 p.m.

The second explosion came 34 minutes later at 4.40 p.m. Sadly, twice the number of explosives blew up. The Fort Stikine was lifted up 3,000 feet above sea level. The meteorologists at Simla studied their seismographís printout. Unbelievably, the earth throughout India had trembled.

What became of the 31 crates of gold? Some of it disintegrated. Some of it melted. Some of it sank. Some of it flew high up in the air and landed in peopleís homes, making them rich overnight. But it was a different story in the case of one gentleman. Burjorji Cooverji Motiwala, a 70-year- old retired Parsi Civil Engineer, was in his third-floor home at Kukana House in Girgaum, Bombay, when the precious metal came crashing through the wall. He took the gold, valued at ?,750 (Rs. 90,000 in those days when the Sterling equivalent was Rs. 13 to the pound, as against Rs. 71 today), to the Police. For his honesty, he was given a reward of Rs. 999. But the magnanimous Parsi donated the amount to a Relief Fund.

Trial by fire

Godrej safes first came on the manufacturing line in 1902. We have with us for the proposed Archives, founder Ardeshir B. Godrejís note in his own hand relating how he manufactured the first fire- and burglar-resistant safe. The relevant extract from Ardeshirís note of 6 February, 1905 reads as follows:

"As to the fire-resisting quality of our safes it may be mentioned that we are the only firm in India that has given live public fire tests. Well-known people were witnesses to the tests and they made out and signed the reports which show that the tests were thoroughly satisfactory. To both these tests we had publicly challenged all rival makers on 23rd November 1904, but no one joined. We repeat the challenge even now.

"To render our safes fire-proof we use a mixture of non-conducting and steam-generating materials the composition of which is our invention and we are so confident of the superiority of our materials to those used by other makers that we have frequently declared our readiness through newspaper advertisements to publicly test our safes in fire along with those of any other makers.

"Thus, whether in point of construction, whether in point of locks, or in point of fire-proofing, our safes stand without a rival."

A major fire had taken place in Dharamtalla Street, Calcutta, and so also in Karachi, and none of these fierce blazes affected the Godrej safes. According to the Calcutta newspapers, the Dharamtalla Street fire on 2 April, 1925 was the most frightful fire that ever took place in India.

In Pirojsha Godrejís words: "The fire started in Messrs Madanís huge store of films in the night of 2nd April in a house above Mr. Abdul Gani Abedinís shop which contained lakhs of rupees worth of piece goods. The piece goods were reduced to ashes, and a Godrej safe as Mr. Gani writes was subjected to the severest test as it remained under flames from beginning to end?When it was opened on 5th April, the safe was found perfectly intact with its costly contents of currency notes, diamonds, pearls etc."

As B.K. Karanjia writes in his book Godrej ____ A Hundred Years (Vol. I, p. 40):

"Godrej safes passed test after test, although the supreme test was to come some years after Ardeshir passed away in 1944, during the wartime ammunition explosion in the Bombay docks. The fires lasted for days, and the loss was tremendous. After the two terrific explosions, Godrej safes in more or less battered condition, but with their contents intact, were brought to Lalbaug to be opened. To give but one example, Godrej safes saved five and a half lakhs of rupees for the Mandvi Branch of the Union Bank of India, which acknowledged the fact in heartfelt gratitude."

What better proof does anyone need for the quality of a Godrej fire-proof safe? The quality of a product, which celebrates its hundredth year of manufacture, has been maintained till today. The Titanic and the Stikine could not stand the tests of time, but Godrej safes did!

As for the havoc the Bombay docks explosions had wrought, when the damage was added up, it was found that all 27 ships in the two docks were sunk, burnt out or badly damaged. All the dock buildings were reduced to heaps of rubble. Some 6,000 Indian and 2,000 British servicemen worked night and day for six months, moving a million tons of debris, to get the harbour working again.

What caused the disaster? Like the Titanic, it is still a mystery. Sabotage was suspected, but never proved, and different theories still float on the high seas. But it was no mystery for the Godrej safe, for Godrej it was a triumph over disaster.

Pesi D. Muncherji


IAS Interview

A young man went for an IAS interview.

"When did India get independence?" he was asked. "The efforts began a few years earlier and the final result was in 1947," he replied.

"Who was responsible for our independence?" "There were so many. Whom to mention? If I name one, it will be injustice to another," he replied.

"Is corruption the number one enemy in our country?" "Some research is being done on the subject, and I can answer with certainty only after seeing the report," he replied.

The interview board was very pleased with his original and thoughtful answers and asked him not to reveal the questions to others, since they were planning to ask the same questions. When he went out, other candidates were curious to know what questions had been asked. He politely refused to reveal any details, but one candidate was persistent. "At least tell me the answers," he pleaded, and our friend obliged.

Then it was the turn of this candidate. When he went inside, since his resume was slightly illegible, a board member asked him, "By the way, what is your date of birth?" The candidate replied, "The effort began a few years earlier and the final result was in 1947."

Somewhat puzzled, they sought further clarification, "What is your fatherís name?" He replied, "There were so many. Whom to mention? If I name one, it will be injustice to another."

The interviewer was incensed, "Hey! Are you mad or what?" He replied, "Some research is being done on the subject. I can answer with certainty only after seeing the report."

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