October 23, 2019 – Today marks the 50th anniversary of the engine room explosion that killed nine members of HMCS Kootenay’s crew and forever altered the lives of many others.
To remember those shipmates lost and to acknowledge the heroic actions of other crew members following this catastrophic event, the Kootenay family will today join with members of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), past and present, friends and members of the public for a 50th anniversary commemorative ceremony at Point Pleasant Park’s Bonaventure Anchor Memorial in Halifax.
“The bravery, heroism and sacrifice of Kootenay’s sailors and their families is foundational to the ‘people first, mission always’ ethos that underpins our modern naval service,” said Vice-Admiral Art McDonald, Commander of the RCN.
“On this date, the RCN experienced the worst peacetime accident in our collective memory with the explosion of HMCS Kootenay. Nine of our shipmates were tragically killed, while 53 others were injured. Swift action by the ship’s company prevented the tragedy from escalating into an even greater calamity. Your actions, nothing short of remarkable, saved lives and ultimately saved your ship.”
HMCS Kootenay’s crew will receive the inaugural Commander RCN Unit Commendation for gallantry and bravery, presented by Rear-Admiral Craig Baines, Commander MARLANT.
While the tragedy had devastating effects, it ultimately shaped and redefined the RCN’s firefighting and damage control practices. Kootenay’s legacy lives on in Damage Control Training Facility Kootenay in Halifax, where sailors continue to pay tribute and learn from the harrowing ordeal.
“Because of you, our sailors are highly trained and ready to deal with a variety of damage control scenarios,” said VAdm McDonald. “This training and these skills have become core competencies that ensure that we, as a navy, are at all times ready to help, ready to lead, ready to fight. Congratulations on this well-deserved commendation.”
On the morning of October 23, 1969, HMCS Kootenay was part of a task force that had been exercising in United Kingdom waters and was returning to Canada, heading westward in the English Channel off Plymouth. At 6:05 a.m. (GMT), Kootenay was ordered to separate from the task force and carry out a routine full-power trial.
The trial started at 8:10 a.m. and at 8:21 a.m. a bearing in the starboard gearbox failed. Its casing had been improperly installed and the oil intended to circulate through it as a coolant overheated, reaching an estimated temperature of 650 °C, and exploded.
The explosion and ensuing fire generated considerable toxic smoke. Despite the devastating loss of life, crew members rallied on the ship’s quarter deck and swiftly organized firefighting equipment and rescue operations; however, most of the firefighting equipment was rendered inaccessible or destroyed by the fire.
As a result, three resourceful ship’s divers strapped on their SCUBA tanks and went below to assist in rescue operations, themselves at great risk of their tanks exploding.
The fire was brought under control by 10:10 a.m. and was extinguished between 10:30 and 11 a.m.
Kootenay was badly damaged but was kept afloat by the professional actions of its crew. The ship would see another 26 years of distinguished service.
The ability and bravery of Kootenay’s crew to respond quickly, and without panic, was extraordinary.
Commander Neil Norton, the Commanding Officer of HMCS Kootenay during the explosion, would later write: “…a less professional crew could easily have finished the day in life rafts.”
The courageous actions of these Kootenay crewmen helped to expedite the creation of the Canadian bravery decorations. In the wake of the tragedy, families, friends, the media and the general public pleaded with the Federal Government to honor these sailors for their duty and sacrifice.
On May 10, 1972, Queen Elizabeth II accredited three new bravery decorations: Crosses of Valor, Stars of Courage and Medals of Bravery.
Appropriately, the first Crosses of Valor were awarded posthumously to two crewmen of HMCS Kootenay – Chief Warrant Officer Vaino Olavi Partanen and Petty Officer Lewis John Stringer. The Star of Courage was awarded to Sub-Lieutenant Clark Reiffenstein and Petty Officer Clement Bussiere, and the Medal of Bravery was awarded to Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert George and Petty Officer 1st Class Gerald Gillingham.
In 2019, the RCN awarded Commander (retired) Al Kennedy and Able Seaman (retired) Allan “Dinger” Bell with the Wound Stripe, which was created in 2001 to recognize members of the Canadian Armed Forces who died or were wounded under honorable circumstances as a direct result of hostile action, during service to Canada.
Bell, one of only three survivors inside the engine room when the gearbox blew, noted that a new HMCS Kootenay ribbon will be prominently featured this year, with RCN members permitted to wear the dark blue ribbon from the first Thursday in October until midnight on October 23.
Bell said the 50th anniversary represents an opportunity to honor the entire group for their bravery and hard work saving the ship, as well as remembering those who were lost.
“It’s very important to recognize the crew for their sacrifices and what they went through. It’s not just about me or any one individual,” he added.
Along with long-term health effects from inhalation of smoke and other chemicals, some survivors have also dealt with post traumatic stress disorder, and access to professional help has allowed some to confront their memories in helpful ways.
But the date of the anniversary, which has been proclaimed “Kootenay Day” in Nova Scotia, is always a difficult occasion, said Chief Warrant Officer (retired) Denis Couvrette, who was a Petty Officer 1st Class and senior radioman on board Kootenay in 1969.
“This will be a special year, and we now have a very appropriate ceremony to remember what happened, but it is always hard. It certainly brings back memories, and they’re not necessarily pleasant ones,” he said.
Couvrette recalled a frantic rush to inform Maritime Command and other ships at sea what had occurred once the smoke cleared from his section, followed by nearly 40 straight hours of work to maintain communications. He also acted as a pallbearer during a funeral service for his shipmates held on board HMCS Saguenay five days later.
He said memories of the explosion are still vivid and troubling today, but added he was thankful that much was learned in the aftermath, leading to the development of the Kootenay Hatch, the end of using aluminum ladders on board, and different locations for firefighting equipment, among other changes. For some inexplicable reason, Kootenay herself never received the Kootenay Hatch.
“This led to many positives, and things being modernized for safety, not just in our navy but in navies around the world,” Couvrette added.
As the Commander RCN Unit Commendation states, the actions of Kootenay’s crew that day brought “tremendous credit to their namesake unit and the RCN.”
“Today’s navy is better because of you – your dedicated service, your bravery, your commitment and your sacrifice,” said VAdm McDonald.