I will remember my mates from HMCS Kootenay – 6533 Gordon Forbes, (RMC 1965)
The Ottawa Citizen May 2, 2009
Re: Battle of the Atlantic remembered, April 30.
As a survivor of the HMCS Kootenay naval disaster in 1969, I will be standing Sunday at the National War Memorial in tribute to the nine men who lost their lives in service to their country.
A wreath commemorating the 40th anniversary of this event will be laid at the war memorial during the public ceremony at the National War Memorial to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the end of the battle.
Besides the long and difficult battle fought by the Canadian Navy from 1939 to 1945 in the Atlantic, we need to recognize those who gave their lives in the same navy in peacetime. The HMCS Kootenay explosion was one of the worst peacetime events in the Canadian Navy’s history.
On Oct. 23, 1969, HMCS Kootenay was returning from Europe across that same Atlantic Ocean. At 8:20 a.m., an explosion and fire in the engine room took the lives of eight sailors, my shipmates. A ninth man died later aboard HMCS Bonaventure. Three men, including the engineering officer, were badly burned and had to be flown (by Sea King helicopter) to England for medical treatment.
In October of this year, survivors of that tragedy will hold memorial services in England and Halifax to mark the anniversary and remember those shipmates who gave their lives. Several of the wives of the deceased will also be at the ceremonies.
HMCS Kootenay under a full head of steam. Launched in 1959, she was decommissioned in 1995.
Taking stock of Canada’s worst peacetime naval disaster
By Sandra Bartlett and Susanne Reber, CBC News
After more than 40 days at sea, the sailors of HMCS Kootenay were looking forward to getting back to their home port of Halifax by Halloween.
The 230 officers and men had just finished naval exercises off the coast of England with seven other Canadian warships and, as Kootenay turned its bow west toward Canada, the captain decided to test the engines by pushing them to maximum power.
It was the kind of drill that was done almost every day to ensure the ship and its crew were in tip-top shape.
But within minutes of reaching full speed the destroyer gave a shudder as a gearbox in one of the main engines exploded.
This was Oct. 23, 1969, and the explosion and resulting fire took the lives of nine sailors and injured more than 50 others.
It was one of the worst peacetime accidents in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Former able seaman Allan Bell remembers the moment. “All of a sudden there was a WHOOSH and we looked and there was a big wall of flame coming out of the starboard gearbox.
“I can remember Petty Officer MacKinnon taking the starboard throttle and trying to turn it back to try and slow us down and the engineer officer grabbed the port throttle and tried to turn it back and he got it turned back a couple of times.”
Bell’s account is a rare telling of what happened aboard Kootenay that day.
Afterward, the surviving sailors never really talked about the disaster.
They went about their lives, were assigned to other ships and then retired, some shortly after the accident.
But now, 40 years later, as survivors gather to remember, more of the story is starting to come out.
As Bell recalls, those on the front lines managed to call the bridge to tell the captain what had happened, and that call provided just enough time for a warning to be sent throughout the ship.
Moments later, the fire knocked out the ship’s communication system.
The explosion occurred at 8:20 in the morning and those sailors who had been on watch during the night were still in their bunks; others were in the cafeteria eating breakfast.
Cyril Johnston, then a sub-lieutenant aboard Kootenay, explains that usually a fire on board a ship is contained to one area.
“I had imagined that a fire in the engine room would be confined to the engine room,” he said, “and they would run hoses down, teams would put on their gear.”
But in this case, he said, when the explosion went off, the hatch in the engine room was open and the rush of air produced a fireball that shot down the main, below-deck passageway of the ship, which was known as Burma Road.
Black, oily smoke and hot gases followed behind the fireball, blanketing the passageway and any open cabin or galley in seconds.
There were about 30 sailors in the cafeteria when the fireball shot past and the smoke moved in quickly.
The smoke made it impossible for the sailors to leave by the cafeteria door.
So the cook opened the shutter of the serving counter and many scrambled out that way.
Some of the sailors, however, couldn’t get to the servery and had to wait for rescue, flat on the floor, desperately gasping for air.
Fight for survival
By this point, the alarm had been sounded.
But the crew lost precious minutes to fight the fire because most of the breathing gear and other firefighting equipment had been stored below the main deck, near the fire itself.
Sailors had to scramble about to find equipment within reach.
The smoke filled the ship but the fire itself was confined to the area around the engine room.
The 10 sailors trapped there had been sprayed with oil from the broken gearbox and instantly became part of the fire.
Bell describes how sailors struggled to climb the one ladder that would get them away from the flames.
“Some people were climbing over other people’s backs, people were being dragged down the ladder, falling down the ladder, dragging the people up behind them, dragging them down.
“I got dragged down the ladder three times,” he says. “The third time I said, ‘I can’t get to that ladder, I’m going to die.’
“I tried to stop one guy from grabbing people and throwing them out of the way and he just took me and threw me to the port side of the engine. And when I stood back up, they just started dropping dead in front of me.”
In the end, Bell managed to get up the ladder and fell on Burma Road where he was found and brought up on deck.
Only three men made it out of the engine room. Bell, John MacKinnon, a petty officer, and Al Kennedy, a lieutenant.
Within seconds of the engine room explosion, the wheelhouse that controlled the ship’s steering was filled with smoke and the crew had to abandon it.
Then electrical power was lost, which made the backup steering useless.
For 40 minutes, the ship moved in large circles at full speed in the North Atlantic.
Attempting to stop it, sailors tried to get into the boiler room to kill the steam supply to the engines, but it took several attempts before they were successful.
By then, a bulge had appeared on the ship’s starboard side as the intense heat from the engine room bent the hull’s metal.
As all this was going on, flares were being fired to alert any ships in the area to Kootenay’s plight.
At that point, the rest of the Canadian ships were miles away but someone saw a flare and immediately these ships turned and headed towards Kootenay.
Former sub-lieutenant John Montague says there was great relief when their sister ships, Bonaventure and Saguenay, arrived.
“Helicopters from other ships were coming over, dropping off supplies, dropping off people, firefighters.
“Seeing the doctor running around, and I can still see him jabbing guys with his hypodermic needle, trying to settle them down, some guys were completely out of it or in extreme pain.”
Death at sea
It was late afternoon by the time the fire was finally out and the bodies could be removed from the engine room.
Helicopters transferred dozens of sailors with burns and smoke inhalation to HMCS Bonaventure.
Later they were transferred to hospitals in the U.K.
Kootenay was towed to Plymouth, where the bodies were taken off the ship the next morning.
At the time, policy dictated that anyone killed while serving in the Forces would be buried in the country where they died.
The only choice the families of Kootenay sailors had was whether the burial would be at sea or in a cemetery in the U.K.
Four families chose a cemetery and four elected at sea. The ninth sailor died of his injuries on HMCS Bonaventure as the ship was on its way back to Canada and he was buried in Halifax.
One of the legacies of the Kootenay explosion is that it was the last time burials of Canada’s serving men and women took place in a foreign country.
In 1970, just months after the Kootenay disaster, the policy was quietly changed so that Armed Forces personnel who die in the line of duty, such as those in Afghanistan, would be brought back to Canada for burial.
Kootenay explosion prompted other changes, too.
There is now much more in the way of support services for the families of those killed or injured in action.
Former Kootenay engineer Russell Saunders says the navy changed the way it fights fires and the location of emergency equipment.
Ships ladders are no longer made of aluminum and won’t melt.
What’s more, every area of the ship has at least two hatches or exits and firefighting equipment is placed throughout the entire vessel.
Four decades later, ships are computerized and mechanized, with sensors to monitor pressures, temperatures and volumes, and to report to computers.
There are now automated systems that can isolate sections of the ship from fire and cut off the oxygen that fuels the flames.
As part of their training, sailors undergo a state-of-the-art firefighting school in Halifax where fires and floods are fought in ship conditions inside a controlled facility.
The school is called Damage Control Training Facility Kootenay and every Canadian sailor learns about the Kootenay explosion.
But not everything about Kootenay explosion is known.
A board of inquiry was held in Plymouth in the days following the incident and it concluded that the explosion was caused by a wrongly inserted bearing in the gearbox.
But, 40 years after the disaster, the final report is still restricted.