On the morning of Oct. 23, 1969, Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Kootenay was part of a task force exercising in United Kingdom waters, and was returning to Canada, heading westward in the English Channel off Plymouth, England. After separating from the task force, the Kootenay started a full-power trial at 0810 (times in 24-hour format), and at 0821 a bearing in the starboard gearbox failed. An improper installation had restricted oil flow, and the coolant overheated, reaching a temperature of at least 650 °C. The resulting explosion and fire became the worst peacetime accident in the history of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).
Perth resident Jim Dean was aboard the Kootenay when the explosion and resulting fire occurred. Recently, he took time to reflect on those events: “I had the middle watch (midnight until 0400 hours), and then we had to ‘turn to’ again at 0800.” (The watches at sea are arduous, especially while on exercise.) “We were doing engine water cooler maintenance, a monthly routine. With a few other men, I proceeded towards the engine room, and when we were about ten feet from the door, it blew open in our faces. That first explosion occurred at 0821. We retreated to the engineers’ workshop nearby, but had no idea what has just happened, or what was happening in real time. Then Petty Officer (PO1) Ray McKinnon came into the workshop, and he was badly burned. All he could say is that there was an explosion.
“We all left the workshop and made our way to the upper deck of the ship, but became separated. The smoke was so thick we couldn’t see each other. We reached topside around 0830, and I can’t remember anything from then until noon. When I came back to my senses, I realized that eight shipmates had been killed. (Another was to die later aboard the HMCS Bonaventure). We had no smoke masks back then, so I had taken in a lot of smoke, but was not treated. Most of the crew who were in the engine room were badly burned, and others were hospitalized for severe smoke inhalation.”
The Department of National Defence (DND) website takes up the story: After the explosion and fire, “The remaining crew members rallied on the Quarter Deck and swiftly organized firefighting equipment and rescue operations, however most of the fire-fighting equipment were 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 1010 hours, and was extinguished between 1030 and 1100.” The Captain of the Kootenay at the time was Commander Neil Norton, and he would later write, “… a less professional crew could easily have finished the day in life rafts.”
Ellen Dean worked for Revenue Canada (now CRA) in Halifax in 1969, and heard about the disaster through the grapevine there. However, she had to endure the agony of not knowing her husband’s fate for two days, when he was able to reach her from a pay phone.
Following the incident, the Kootenay was towed by the HMCS Saguenay to Plymouth, England, where she was dry-docked and prepared for the tow home. The navy began to prepare for funeral services at once. At the time, Canadian military policy was that personnel who died overseas must be buried there. The men’s families had a choice between interment in England, or burial at sea. Four families chose interment, and four chose burial at sea. Petty Officer Lewis Stringer, who died aboard the Bonaventure, was the only victim to be buried on home soil.
The decision not to repatriate the remains and to put a limit on family members allowed at the funerals did not sit well with many. Ellen Dean mentioned that only immediate family received expense money to attend.
The long tow home was by the Dutch tugboat Elbe, said Jim Dean. He recalls they arrived home – Halifax Jetty Five – on Nov. 27 at 2115. He was one of about 15 men from the original crew to stay with the ship for the trip home.
Perhaps a fitting tribute, the courageous actions of the Kootenay crew helped Canada move ahead with the creation of new bravery decorations. On May 10, 1972, Queen Elizabeth II approved three new decorations: Cross of Valour, Star of Courage, and Medal of Bravery. Several Kootenay crewmen were awarded bravery decorations posthumously.
The ship was repaired, refitted as a new class of Destroyer, then re-commissioned on Jan. 7, 1972. According to the DND website, the Kootenay “… served in the RCN from 1959-1995. She was the fifth ship in her class and the second vessel to carry the designation HMCS Kootenay.” She carried a crew of approximately 255 at the time of the disaster at sea, according to Dean.
Along with long-term health effects from inhalation of smoke and other chemicals, some survivors have also had to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms can include flashbacks, night terrors, and severe anxiety.
Dean has some of those symptoms to this day, and it was indeed stressful for him when we talked recently. He spent a total of 33 years in the RCN, retiring in 1995 with the rank of Chief Petty Officer First Class (CPO1).
This year’s 50th anniversary ceremony will be held at the Bonaventure Anchor Memorial in Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, on Oct. 23 at 1000. The refurbished memorial honours those who died during peacetime, and features the names of the nine Kootenay members who were killed.
And so, the grim reaper came calling on the Kootenay crew wrapped in flame and smoke. He left that fateful morning with eight crewmen, and returned to the Bonaventure for a ninth a few days later. The dead lie in a foreign land, or at the bottom of the sea, and the living endure still the horrible memories.
Wherever you are on Oct. 23, please take a moment to remember the stalwart crew of the HMCS Kootenay from the tragedy of 1969, living and dead.
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