Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 August 2020

MV Dara: a suspected terrorist atrocity that was never solved

The scale of the disaster in 1961 overwhelmed Dubai’s medical facilities, as medics struggled to treat badly burned survivors

For more than a decade, the MV Dara was part of life along the Arabian Gulf.

One of a fleet of four ships operated by the British India Line, it sailed regularly from Bombay to Basra, with stops along the way at Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and Muscat.

Westerners strolled along her upper decks, perhaps taking in their first glimpse of the long imagined exotic East. Those looking for work or reuniting with their families lived on the lower decks, sleeping in dormitories or outside if the heat was too great.

In the holds were sacks of mail, along with goods for the increasingly busy souks in this oil rich land. Before air travel became common, almost everything and everyone moved by sea.

On April 8, 1961, the Dara was transformed into something else; a place of fire and death, as a massive explosion ripped through her decks and hull leaving more than 230 dead and many others badly injured.

The 5,000 tonne ship, built in Glasgow in 1948, and with a draft shallow enough to navigate Gulf waters, had arrived in Dubai Creek on the previous afternoon on the return leg of a round trip to Mumbai.

The MV Dara capsized on April 10, 1961 after being badly damaged by an explosion.
The MV Dara capsized on April 10, 1961 after being badly damaged by an explosion.

The wind had been picking up, and the Dara had already been struck a glancing blow by another vessel that had dragged its anchor. The captain, Charles Elson, made a snap decision to stop loading and ride out the storm at sea.

On board were passengers and crew, but also local agents, merchants, and officials who had not had time to disembark. In total, more than 800 people spent an uncomfortable night as the ship rolled and pitched in heavy seas.

Disaster struck at 4.40am. The explosion tore through the galley into the engine room and two upper decks. All power was knocked out, including steering and the water hoses that might have fought the massive fire.

His vessel hopelessly disabled, Capt Elson gave the order to abandon ship. Chaos followed as terrified passengers swamped the lifeboats or just jumped into the sea.

A British Army tank landing craft, Empire Guillemot, was first on the scene, followed by other navy ships and a Norwegian tanker that braved the flames despite the considerable risk to its own cargo of gas.

By dawn, the worst of the flames had been put out and the Dara taken under tow by a salvage ship. Badly damaged, the ship capsized and sank off Um Al Quwain at 9.20am on April 10.

The scale of the disaster overwhelmed Dubai’s medical facilities, including Al Maktoum Hospital. Many of the survivors were badly burned, with the worst cases taken to Bahrain. Relatives searched the city for lost family members, some of whom were never found.

Out of 819 people on board, between 230 and 240 died, men, women and children, almost all Arab or Indian. The exact number will never be known.

An inquiry by the British authorities concluded the explosion was a terrorist attack. Oman rebels, trying to overthrow the sultan, were said to have planted a mine on board, possibly in a suitcase. Had the storm not delayed the Dara’s sailing from Dubai, the explosion would have happened as the ship entered Muscat harbour.

Those responsible have never been identified. Today, the ship lies in 30 metres of water, marked by a black and yellow buoy with the words "Dara wreck".

Updated: July 4, 2020 02:46 PM

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