April 14th. 1944. The "Fort Stikine" (Port Line) exploded while discharging 1,300 tons of TNT at Victoria Dock, Bombay. The first explosion occurred at 15.45 hrs. followed by a larger explosion at 16.06 hrs, 19 merchant ships were destroyed, the dock area destroyed and also a large area of the adjacent town. The "Kingyuan" was gutted by the ensuing fire. Three Indian naval ships were also sunk or seriously damaged. Altogether 251 ship's crew members died, 940 persons are known to have disappeared, some estimates put the total deaths at around 2,000.
The "Fort Stikine" had sailed from Britain with munitions, with a first call at Karachi, where she loaded baled raw cotton in the lower holds for Bombay. She was carrying munitions, including 1,200 tons of TNT, and lubricating oil in drums in the 'tweendecks and the raw cotton in bales was loaded in the lower hold at Karachi. At that time raw cotton was an unusual cargo for British ships and the ship's officers, whilst they were aware of the hazards of this stowage - oil and cotton must always be separated as any leakage of oil into the cotton will result in spontaneous combustion - were unable to find any written authority to support their concerns, so they were overruled. Consequently the ship was a floating time bomb. Fire was going to start in the cotton as soon as leakage from the oil drums got to it. At Bombay she was not permitted to fly flag B for fear of sabotage and arrangements for taking off the explosives at the DG anchorage were cancelled.
Extract from official log S.S. KINGYUAN
Date and hour of occurrence: 14.4.44., 16.00
Place of occurrence: B. Shed Prince’s Dock Bombay
Date of entry: 17.4.44.
Entries required by Act of Parliament:
Vessel berthed at B. Shed Prince’s Dock. The Master was ashore on ship’s business. 2nd Officer was also ashore. A vessel lying at No.1 berth Victoria Dock was noticed to have a fire on board at 14.30 and fire engines were in attendance. At or about 15.30 hoses were laid on deck, water on deck ordered in case of emergency. About 16.00 hrs. I noticed shore labour running along wharf and shouting, and a military man passed on a Motor Cycle, called out to take cover. Our native crew cleared down gangway along with shore labour. I notified all on deck to take cover and immediately afterwards a violent explosion occurred. When debris had cleared I went around and found our Engineers, 3rd Officer, 1st W/O, 11 Gunners and Carpenter all safe.
Our boats had caught fire, and all turned to, Engineers attending the Donkey Boiler and pumps, and these fires were soon under control. The godowns ashore were ablaze, and there was no escape that way. I ordered the 3rd Officer to get the Gunners to clear away the small working boat, ready for abandoning. About 16.45 a second violent explosion occurred and when falling debris had cleared it was noticed that all boats were wrecked and fires starting all over which were uncontrollable. Engineers were called out of Engine Room, W/O was found with hand injured, 3rd Officer could not be found also one Gunner. For’d port raft was cast adrift and all boarded except, Chief Engineer, 2nd Eng. 4th Eng. and myself. I noticed raft could not get away from ship’s side owing to strong wind, and made an attempt to swim to a lifeboat which was attached to another ship, but in the water. The 2nd Eng. noticed I could not get her adrift so came to my assistance and cut the painter, but finding no oars in the boat we just drifted. I swam towards raft which was in difficulties, but we managed to secure her alongside a small R.I.N. ship which was not on fire, and they were safe there. The lifeboat with 2nd Eng. drifted towards us and after securing it, we procured two oars from the raft, improvised rowlocks and made an attempt to go back to Kingyuan to pick up Chief and 4th Engineers who were hanging on to ropes at vessel’s side. Owing to strong wind and water flowing out of dock it was very difficult to get near; after several attempts, the Chief Engineer drifted down to us on a board and was picked up. The 4th Eng. made no attempt to let go. At about 20.00 hrs a naval rescue party arrived and took us off by way of the sea wall. We told them the 4th Engineer’s position and they returned later in the evening rescuing him.
All crew have been accounted for except 3rd Officer Mr B. Gunther, one Gunner Robb.
According to reports just received these two bodies have been seen, one on boat deck and one on poop but unrecognisably.
Ship’s papers in safe custody consist of:
Official Log Book
All other ship’s papers and naval documents were in ship’s safe in Captain’s room.
(Sd.) G.T.M. Ramsay, Mate. (Sd.) F. Gibbs, Master.
Employed on the Swatow - Bangkok - Hong Kong service.