LONDON: On the night of April 8, 1961, Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, 11, future ruler of Dubai, was awakened by the sound of a fierce storm hitting the royal palace.
As a child, he had heard the elders of his grandfather’s generation recall phenomenal storms of such savagery that they compared them to the Day of Judgment.
But, as Sheikh Mohammed wrote in his autobiography “My Story” in 2019, “I did not pay much attention to their prophetic and condemnable words.”
It was until that April night of 1961 when “I found my bed in the middle of a full force storm, with windows slamming in the strong winds blowing in our family home… It looked like the world was ending everywhere. me, what other cultures call the end of days. “
It was, he writes, “the start of a seemingly endless night,” during which a large number of his father’s subjects, many of them injured and rendered homeless by the storm, sought refuge in the palace.
Outside, Sheikh Mohammed recalled, “there was heavy destruction, with palm trees flying through the air like toys, many houses damaged or completely destroyed and fishing boats thrown into the streets of the city. Many families were killed or injured that night. “
And then, just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse, they did. On the storm-swept sea, dozens of people were losing their lives – not from the fury of nature, but at the hands of a ruthless human killer.
Dubai ruler Sheikh Rashid had organized men to take to the streets to help where they could and to help Al-Maktoum hospital staff cope with the flooding waves of injuries.
And then, Sheikh Mohammed recalled, “news came that froze my father where he was standing. The British soldiers rushed to the door, barely catching their breath. They shouted: “Your Highness! There is a fire on the Dara! The world seemed to have stopped.
The MV Dara, a 120-meter, 5,000-ton vessel, was a familiar sight in Dubai and the Gulf. Owned by the British India Steam Navigation Co., it was one of four similar vessels which for the past decade or more provided regular cargo and passenger service to and from Bombay (today hui Mumbai) via the Gulf ports.
The Dara had left Mumbai on March 23 and, after stopping in Karachi, Muscat, Dubai, Doha, Bahrain, Kuwait, Khorramshahr, Abadan and Basra, had returned to Dubai on April 7. On board were around 560 passengers and 132 crew members.
The ship was anchored off the creek, with small boats carrying passengers and cargo to and from shore, when the afternoon weather began to deteriorate rapidly.
At around 5:30 p.m., after the Dara was cut off by a nearby freighter that had dragged its anchor in the rising seas, Captain Charles Elson made the decision to set sail and weather the storm in the relative safety of the sea. the water.
It was a fateful decision for the 128 or so dockworkers, officials, traders and friends of the passengers who had boarded in Dubai and were unable to disembark before the ship pulled away to weather the storm. In all, approximately 820 souls were on board that night.
After the storm began to subside around 4 a.m. the next morning, the Dara began its return to Dubai. She never succeeded.
Forty-three minutes later, a terrible explosion in an alley on the port upper deck shook the ship.
“This explosion was of considerable violence,” reports the official investigation into the tragedy, conducted in London in March and April 1962.
“He blew up a semi-circular hole about 6 feet wide and 4 feet high in the engine room housing, which separated the engine room from that aisle; a slightly larger hole was blown into the bulkhead on the port side; in the bridge above there was a hole about 4 feet in diameter … the fire immediately started, there was thick smoke; all electrical power was cut off, the steering gear was taken out of service, and the pipes in the vicinity of the explosion were ruptured.
Many passengers and even crew members panicked, crowding into lifeboats “with a considerable amount of baggage” even before the call came to abandon ship. Of the six lifeboats launched, two capsized with fatalities.
In “My Story,” Sheikh Mohammed painted a vivid picture of the horror that unfolded when nearby ships, Dubai fishermen and others rushed to Dara’s aid.
“Over 800 passengers were on board the sinking ship,” he wrote. “The soldiers said many were killed immediately, but more and more passengers were dying every minute as they rushed to escape – some crushed to death, others drowning in the raging waters.
(Then) news came that froze my dad where he was standing. The British soldiers rushed to the door, barely catching their breath. They shouted: “Your Highness! There is a fire on the Dara! The world seemed to have stopped.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum
Overloaded lifeboats “capsized in the middle of the sea and high winds scattered the boats in all directions.”
At the palace, “we have gathered our loved ones and a large number of Dubai residents in our home. My father sent our whole family, bar none, with lifeboats to try and save everyone. We were able to rescue about 500 people that night – a night that I thought would never end; horror, violence and terrible human tragedy. “
Dara, crippled and burnt, remained afloat for two more days before finally capsizing and sinking while being towed to Dubai. Today, it is on its side about 8 km offshore.
In interviews with this writer ten years ago, survivors and relatives of those aboard the ship recounted the horror of that night.
John Soares, then 23-year-old deputy commissioner from Goa, recalled being thrown by the explosion from his cabin bunk on the main deck. “I found complete confusion on the bridge,” he says. “I could see a gaping hole with fire coming out of it.
Even as he tried to convince passengers to put on life jackets, many jumped into the rough seas without them.
“They weren’t listening to anyone, they lived in their own world,” he said. “It was terrible, total panic.”
Decades after the tragedy, he remained haunted by the events of that night – the sight of many who jumped breaking their necks on impact with the water, and the horror of seeing mothers in despair. to save their babies from the flames that engulfed the ship, instead of throwing them to certain death in the sea.
Many people in the region remain affected by the tragedy. Raja Qaiser from Islamabad, born 12 years after the sinking, recalled how his family still mourned their “lost children” – the four sisters Latifa, 17, Shoib, 7, Jamela, 5 and Hafeza, 3 months – deceased on the ship with their mother Maqsood.
As a child, Qaiser often heard his father Raja, who was not on the ship and died in 1987 at age 70, talking about his lost children. Until the end of his life, “he believed they had survived. He wouldn’t let anyone cry.
After the tragedy, which affected so many families in the Gulf, the search for the cause of the explosion began.
In 1957, Britain intervened in an increasingly bitter war between the Sultan of Oman and the rebel tribes. The conflict reached a turning point in 1959 when British special forces and RAF bombers delivered a series of decisive blows against the rebels in what became the Jebel Akhdar War.
The uprising had been crushed, but for a time the insurgents continued to plant landmines in Oman, hitting military and civilian vehicles.
In 1962, a special tribunal convened in Britain under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 examined the evidence for 15 days and concluded that an explosive – possibly a landmine – had been “almost certainly, deliberately placed in the ship. by one or more people. unknown.”
Sir John Hobson, the Solicitor General, told the inquest that the explosion was a “willful and perverse act” of sabotage, the work of the Omani rebels.
The explosion, reported the investigation, had caused “an instantaneous fire which spread with extreme rapidity”.
The deaths were due “partly to the explosion itself and partly to the extremely rapid spread of the fire, which suffocated an unknown number of people and prevented the launch of the majority of the lifeboats.”
Evidence was provided to the investigation by divers from the British Royal Navy who had been dispatched to examine the wreck of the Dara.
They concluded that “there was little doubt that the explosion was caused by a high explosive of the type and quantity roughly used in an anti-tank mine … which had been deliberately detonated, probably by a detonator with a stopwatch ”.
No group has claimed responsibility for the explosion and no one has ever been accused of carrying it out, but many suspects have been arrested and questioned by the British.
Sir John de Silva, first secretary of the British political residence in Bahrain, told the inquiry that a prominent member of the rebel group had “admitted that the explosion was caused by his colleagues”.
The unofficial conclusion came that the bomb was intended to explode in Muscat in Oman, the next scheduled stopover of the Dara.
Hidden in a suitcase, the explosives may have been smuggled aboard in Dubai by an insurgent or insurgents who had traveled by land to the port from Oman.
In a final twist of fate brought on by a storm of the type equated by the elders of Dubai on Judgment Day, the bomber may have been trapped on board when the skipper of the Dara weighed anchor and sailed in open water for weather the storm. And, most likely, he was among the dead.