Emirati survivors recall MV Dara disaster as tourism plan unveiled

The story of 230 lives lost off the UAE coast will be shared with the public ahead of the 60th anniversary

Abdullah Al Hathboor, an Emirati businessman, was just six when he survived the MV Dara disaster in 1961. Reem Mohammed / The National
Abdullah Al Hathboor, an Emirati businessman, was just six when he survived the MV Dara disaster in 1961. Reem Mohammed / The National

Related: MV Dara, a terrorist atrocity that was never solved

Two Emirati survivors of the sunken MV Dara, the Gulf's worst maritime disaster, recalled the vessel's final journey 59 years ago as a plan to turn the site into a tourist attraction was unveiled.

The 5,000-tonne British India Line vessel was engulfed in flames after an explosion late on April 8, 1961, killing more than 230 passengers and crew and leaving more injured. Foul play was suspected.

Severely damaged by the blast – the cause of which has not been identified – the ship capsized and sank off Umm Al Quwain two days later.

As the emirate's tourism authorities planned to restore the site to allow visitors to learn of its history, the memories for two Emiratis who were children when the tragedy unfolded remained vivid.

Abdullah Al Hathboor was six years old when a relative, who was on the ship at the time of the explosion, saved his life. He lost his brother Majid, 8, and his sister Ayesha, 5, in the blast.

It was supposed to be one of the best days in my life but it turned out to be the worst

Abdurrahman Al Midfa

“The story happened a long time ago but there are many details that I couldn’t forget,” said Mr Al Hathboor, a 65-year-old Emirati businessman from Dubai.

“I remember being on board the ship with my mother, grandmother, three brothers and one sister, and we were travelling to India."

Mr Al Hathboor said that he was with the rest of the family in a cabin when the explosion happened.

“Men that used to know my family came to rescue us and each man carried one of us,” he said. “It was very dark, and I remember seeing a huge fire on the deck.

“The man made me wear a life jacket and carried me on his back before jumping into the water.

“I was very scared and tightly gripped his neck. He swam to a small boat, left me there and went back to save more people.

“My grandmother managed to save my 40-day-old baby brother Ahmed. My mother, and brother Jamal, 4, were also rescued, but we lost my sister Ayesha and brother Majid.”

The rescue boat transferred Mr Al Hathboor to another ship that was heading to Bahrain.

“After reaching Bahrain they arranged a flight for us to Dubai, where I was reunited with my family,” he said.

Another survivor said his grandmother died after she insisted on saving him and his mother first.

“The day was supposed to be one of the best days in my life, but it turned out to be the worst,” said Abdurrahman Al Midfa, a 66-year-old Emirati who was seven years old when the ship sank.

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

He was on the ship with his parents, grandmother and the domestic helper.

“We took off from Sharjah to Dubai to board the ship and travel to Bombay to visit my uncle,” he said.

“I remember the ladder that we climbed to board the ship, and the bunk beds in the cabin.

“It was late at night when my father started to shout 'fire' in three languages Arabic, English and Urdu. Then, we all went out of the room and saw the huge fire," Mr Al Midfa said.

“Many men were helping others and they offered to help us, but my grandmother refused to go first and insisted on letting us go before her.”

Divers have cleared more than three tonnes of debris surrounding the wreckage of the MV Dara. Courtesy: Abdullah Al Balooshi
Divers have cleared more than three tonnes of debris surrounding the wreckage of the MV Dara. Courtesy: Abdullah Al Balooshi

Mr Al Midfa saw many people jumping from the ship, and small boats capsizing because of the many people trying to get on board.

“We suddenly lost my grandmother,” he said.

“My mother was rescued first, and I stayed on the ship with my father to try to find my grandmother.

“The situation was getting worse and after two hours of searching for my grandmother, we had to jump from the ship and take one of the small rescue boats which took us to another ship that was sailing to Bahrain.”

Mr Al Midfa and his father were reunited with his mother in Bahrain and were also sent to Dubai by plane.

Divers delve deep under water to explore the wreckage of the doomed MV Dara. Courtesy: Abdullah Al Balooshi
Divers delve deep under water to explore the wreckage of the MV Dara. Courtesy: Abdullah Al Balooshi

“For years, my father kept writing and sending photos of my grandmother to news outlets and stations abroad hoping to find her, but we never did.”

Mr Al Midfa’s cousin said that his grandmother was travelling with his uncle and his family to see her son in Mumbai when the ship sank.

“I was seven when we received the news about the ship fire,” said Turki Al Midfa, a 66-year-old Emirati retired from the Ministry of Health and Prevention.

“My uncle and his wife and son survived the accident but my grandmother did not.”

“My grandmother was with my uncle’s family when they left the rooms to take the rescue boats, but she suddenly disappeared.”

“They did not know if she was trying to get on a rescue boat and accidentally fell in the water or died due to the fire after she became frightened and walked away from them,” he said.

Mr Al Midfa said that his uncle’s wife managed to get on a rescue boat while his uncle and son Abdurrahman jumped in the water and were rescued by another boat.

‎“We went to check on them at their house when they returned back, after a day and a half from the accident, ‎and we were all feeling sad for our grandmother’s loss,” he said.‎

The wreck of the 120-metre-long Dara sits 15 to 20 metres under water, four nautical miles off the coast of Umm al Quwain.

About three tonnes of fishing nets and cages, along with plastic waste, which accumulated on and around the wreck were removed by the Dubai Voluntary Diving Team.

The site clean-up was launched by Umm Al Quwain Tourism and Archaeology Department last year, as part of The Discovery of Dara project in an effort to restore the shipwreck site and create a tourist attraction.

"The first phase of the project's strategic and media plan includes the process of cleaning the shipwreck site of waste that was covering and hiding the shipwreck structure," said a representative of department.

The diving team removed about 90 per cent of the waste in collaboration with the Umm Al Quwain Municipality Department, the Umm Al Quwain Cooperative Society for Fishermen and Coast Guard.

Abdullah Al Balooshi, director of Dubai Voluntary Diving Team, said the group carried out 12 clean-up dives since November 2019. Twelve divers took part.

“We started in November and stopped for three month from March due to the Covid-19 and resumed this month,” said Mr Al Balooshi.

“Most of the waste found at the site was fishing nets and fishing cages, old and new, stuck on the ship’s structure, and they required some time to be removed safely without affecting the ship’s remains."

Mr Al Balooshi said that high current and bad weather were the main challenges they faced during the clean-up campaign.

“We had to cancel many diving trips, and the fact that it is a historical site and we had to be extra cautious when removing the wrapped nets,” he said.

The team aimed to complete the clean-up this month.

Updated: September 14, 2020 02:00 PM


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