One man’s search for those lost at sea: The MV Dara tragedy
On this day more than half a century ago, a steamship sank off Dubai with the loss of 238 lives. The tragedy of the MV Dara was one of the world’s worst maritime disasters and survivors are still searching for relatives.
April 8 carries sad memories for Sharafuddin Sharaf. For it is on this day in 1961 that he lost his mother and three siblings on the ill-fated last voyage of the MV Dara, which sank off the coast of Dubai after an on-board explosion.
At the time, the sinking of the MV Dara was the worst peacetime disaster on the high seas, second only to the Titanic.
Mr Sharaf is one of the Emirati survivors interviewed by The National on the 54th anniversary of the tragic journey, when 238 people perished. Mr Sharaf, who was then 8 years old, was travelling to Karachi with his family.
The MV Dara was owned by the British India Steam Navigation Company and ran on the Bombay/Arabian Gulf service, along with three other similar cargo-passenger steamers.
She served the ports of Basra, Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai, Muscat, Karachi and Bombay, with accommodation for 20 first-class, 54 second-class and 1,377 deck passengers.
The vessel, which was on her final journey, had started from Bombay, on a three-week circular route.
She arrived in Dubai on April 7, and as she was loading cargo and embarking passengers, a storm hit the area in the late afternoon.
In the stormy weather the ship collided with Zeus, another vessel that had broken its anchor cable. MV Dara sustained minor damage and the captain decided to leave the harbour and head to sea to ride out the storm.
But while returning early the next morning, a large explosion ripped through the berths. It caused a massive fire that burnt for two days before the vessel finally sank.
After an inquiry into the disaster, a British court ruled that it had been caused by an act of sabotage. And until this day, the perpetrators who planted explosives on board the MV Dara have remained unknown.
Despite an extensive investigation, no one has ever been arrested, although fingers of accusation have pointed at rebels from a neighbouring country.
After an illustrious career at Dubai Police where he was the head of CID, Mr Sharaf is now the vice chairman of the Sharaf Group, a business with operations in shipping, logistics and retail.
Mr Sharaf, now 62 years old, has vivid memories of the incident. He remembers travelling from his home in Bastakiya to the offices of Gray Mackenzie, the Gulf agents of the liner. In those days, Dubai had no dock so all ships anchored off Dubai Creek. Barges and small dhows would ferry passengers and cargo back and forth, from ship to shore.
“We got on the dhow and it was a two-hour journey to the ship. I was travelling with my mother, my younger sister, three of my brothers and a male servant,” Mr Sharaf recalls.
“When we got on board, the sea started becoming rough, and at noon, the ship departed.”
Another survivor, Abdullah Al Hathboor, who lost a brother and sister in the tragedy, has sketchy memories, as he was only 6 years old at the time.
“We were travelling to Bombay to be with my dad. There was me, my mother, my 3-year-old sister Aisha, and my three brothers; Majid, 8, Jamal, 4, Ahmad, just 40 days old, and my grandmother and other relatives,” says Mr Al Hathboor, who is chairman of Al Hathboor Group.
Mr Al Hathboor’s mother, who passed away a few years ago, was haunted by the horror of that night for the rest of her life.
“She was separated from all of us except for my younger brother, Jamal, and fought through the mass of panicked people aboard the burning vessel, looking for us.”
His mother never forgot the horrendous sights she saw. People running whilst on fire; some throwing babies into the sea to save them; others plunging to their death into the sea.
“She described it as a scene from Doomsday, where terrified children were running around crying for their mothers and people were choking or burning to death, while she herself was trying to find an exit from the burning vessel,” he says.
Mr Sharaf remembers being woken up by two huge explosions and then smoke quickly enveloping the ship. “My mother, who was tending my seasick older brother, told our servant to take me and my brother, 6-year-old Mohammed Amin, to the deck”, recalls Mr Sharaf.
He described the scene on deck as nightmarish, as part of the ship was on fire and people were running around in total panic.
“It was complete chaos and in that melee I got separated from my brother. Some people grabbed me and took me with them in one of the lifeboats. While they were taking me I screamed to them that I was with my brother, and they told me they would bring him,” he says.
But the lifeboat was overloaded and more survivors who tried to clamber in were forcibly removed.
A few hours later, a rescue vessel picked up the survivors and took them to a big steamer ship.
“I informed those in the ship about my brother and they took me around the vessel to look for him but I couldn’t find him,” says Mr Sharaf.
The ship took them to Dubai and his father was there to greet him. He later learnt that his mother had given his youngest brother, Mohammed Sharaf, who was 6 months old at that time, to the servant and told him to flee with him. She had planned to follow him with the rest of the children.
Sadly, she and her two other children never made it to the deck and were probably suffocated by the thick smoke.
“As for baby Mohammed, the servant had put him in a suitcase and jumped into the sea with him. A rescue boat took them to Bahrain and there a family took care of him for six months until we managed to bring him back,” he said.
As for Mr Al Hathboor, he was found crying on board the burning ship by one of the men who were travelling with his family. The man dived into the sea with the young boy on his back.
“He swam with me for hours until a boat rescued us and took us to Bahrain.
“My grandmother, who had my brother Ahmad, had also been taken to Bahrain. After a few days they brought us back to Dubai, where I was reunited with my family,” says Mr Al Hathboor.
As for his mother, she had to climb down the ship during the turbulent weather while carrying her son. She was saved by a ship which took her to Dubai.
Later on, she learnt that both her son Majid and daughter Aisha had perished. She also lost her cousin and other relatives.
The Sharaf family never gave up hope and looked for Mohammed Amin, convinced that he had not died. “We searched for him in Pakistan, India, Bahrain, Yemen, even all the way to East Africa, hoping that maybe a passing ship had picked him up,” says Mr Sharaf. “In the mid-1970s we conducted a search campaign for him in Bahrain, and some people came forward claiming that they had information, but nothing came out of it.”
After 54 years, he still has not given up hope and continues to search for his brother.
Shadiah Abdullah Al Jabry is a regular contributor to The National.
Updated: April 7, 2015 04:00 AM