Remembering the HMCS Kootenay tragedy
By Joanie Veitch,
A ceremony was held on Sunday, October 23 to mark the 53rd anniversary of the explosion aboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Kootenay, the worst peacetime accident in the history of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).
The tragedy forever changed the lives of the survivors, marking them with lifelong physical and mental scars. It also led to major improvements in ship design and shipboard firefighting and damage control practices, including the creation of a damage control division and Damage Control Training Facility Kootenay, named to commemorate the ship and the disaster.
“It has shaped, and will continue to shape generations of sailors,” said Commander (Cdr) David Roberge, Commandant Naval Fleet School (Atlantic). “HMCS Kootenay is, and will remain, one of the most important events to all sailors in the Royal Canadian Navy.”
On the morning of October 23, 1968, HMCS Kootenay was taking part in sea trials off the coast of Plymouth, England. The ship was running at maximum speed when the gearbox overheated and exploded, causing a fire that ripped through the ship’s engine room. Nine crew members died, another 53 were seriously injured.
“It has often been said that a lesser crew would have ended the day in lifeboats. The fact that they saved the ship, and each other, is a testament to their courage, to their training, and to their sacrifice,” said Rear-Admiral Brian Santarpia, Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic, in his address during the ceremony.
The disaster resulted in a number of lessons learned for the Navy, he said, leading to better damage control training for all sailors, and better understanding of the long term, and far-reaching, effects of such a tragedy.
“We slowly, but surely, learned the importance of supporting the sailors, and their families,” he said.
In 2019, Commander (retired) Al Kennedy and Leading Seaman (retired) Allan “Dinger” Bell received the Wound Stripe, a distinction given to military members wounded in service.
Also in 2019, the ship’s company of HMCS Kootenay received the inaugural Commander RCN Unit Commendation for gallantry and bravery, which was on display at this year’s ceremony.
Giving the eulogy, Dr. Heather MacKinnon — a former military officer and medical practitioner who specializes in serving military members and veterans — spoke about the support that survivors of the tragedy have created for each other, and the larger “Kootenay family”.
“You stayed together as a crew and you look after each other. And as you’ve grown older, now you have an extended family,” she said. “It’s wonderful the way you’ve brought others into this, because what’s happened to you can’t be forgotten. You’re doing your best, and you’re all so brave.”
The commemorative service was led by Captain (Navy) (retired) John Montague, who was a junior officer aboard HMCS Kootenay in 1969, and included a moving reading of Eileen Mahoney’s poem “In Waters Deep” by Jerry Howell, also a Kootenay survivor.
Also during the service, October 23 was proclaimed as HMCS Kootenay Day, by Mike Savage, mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality, and Steve Craig, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, on behalf of the premier.
Crew members who died as a result of the HMCS Kootenay explosion were: Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Vaino “Ski” Partanen; Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class William Alfred “Billy” Boudreau; Petty Officer Eric George Harman; Petty Officer Lewis John Stringer; Leading Seaman Pierre “Pete” Bourret; Leading Seaman Thomas Gordon Crabbe; Leading Seaman Gary Wayne Hutton; Able Seaman Michael Allen Hardy; Ordinary Seaman Nelson Murray Galloway.
On October 22, a brook in Pictou County was named Billy Boudreau Brook in honour of CPO2 Boudreau at a dedication ceremony held at the site in Union Centre, NS.
In 2019, LS (retired) Bell put a request into the province to have the brook named after CPO2 Boudreau. The brook is marked with provincial signage, and a plaque with details of his military history.
Members of Boudreau’s family attended the ceremony, along with members of the Kootenay family, and military personnel.