Kootenay survivors mark 49 years since peacetime tragedy at sea
By Ryan Melanson,
Steve Rowland was only 18 years in old, in the first year of his naval career, when he was posted to HMCS Kootenay in May of 1968. He recalled meeting up with a few sailors he already knew, being shown the ropes on board, and expecting to make good memories with his new shipmates.
That all changed, however, on October 23 of the following year. The ship was returning from exercises in Europe, and had broke off from the task group for full power trials, about 200 nautical miles off Plymouth, England, when disaster struck. Rowland recalled that he was supposed to be in the engine room at the time, and got permission from his chief to finish a cigarette before heading there. He had one foot on the ladder when he heard a noise and felt his ears pop.
“I looked up the top of the latch and saw a solid wall of black smoke moving forward. Then we heard the pipe that there was a fire in the engine room, and that this was not an exercise,” he said.
That fire, stemming from a gearbox explosion, would kill nine of his shipmates and leave more than 50 others injured, leading to lifelong chronic issues for many. If not for the heroic actions of the crew, many of whom ventured into the black smoke to help their colleagues, the result may have been even worse.
The 1969 explosion in HMCS Kootenay is now known as the Royal Canadian Navy’s worst peacetime disaster, and often referenced as the catalyst for the modern damage control and firefighting procedures that have since been adopted. A ceremony marking 49 years since the tragedy took place on Monday, October 23, at Damage Control Training Facility Kootenay, which is also named in commemoration of the Kootenay explosion. It was attended by survivors from the 1969 crew, along with friends and family members, and others, including Base Commander Capt(N) David Mazur and Naval Fleet School (Atlantic) Commandant Cdr Danny Croucher. The Halifax Regional Municipality and Provincial Government were also represented, with Mayor Mike Savage and Hammonds Plains – Lucasville MLA Ben Jessome each reading proclamations.
As the survivors enter the 50th year since the explosion and begin planning for the milestone commemoration in 2019, a new HMCS Kootenay ribbon has been created, which will be worn in future years from October 1 – 23.
“We wanted our own symbol that Canadians could uniquely identify with Kootenay. The poppy will always represent all veterans, but the HMCS Kootenay ribbon will identify those that died aboard Kootenay,” said AB (Ret’d) Allan “Dinger” Bell.
The ribbon is dark blue with white capital letters. A section is left blank, representing the lives unlived, while the straight pin represents those who selflessly went to the aid of others. Credit went to the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia, as well as DB Embroidery, for help bringing the project to fruition. Also new for the 50th year will be a Kootenay ship model recently delivered DCTF Kootenay from the west coast and now on display. The model was previously owned by the late RAdm John Pickford, who commanded HMCS Kootenay in 1959.
Rowland said he still thinks about his lost friends, and the disaster itself, every single day.
“But I believe there are positive things that came about because of the disaster in HMCS Kootenay. The proof is in this building, and the training that goes on here,” he added.
Cdr Croucher, as the head of the training school, assured the former Kootenay crewmembers and their families that their story will not be forgotten, and will continue to shape the RCN’s damage control practices and policies.
“The tragedy led to better training, thorough inspections, and more firefighting and damage control equipment onboard ships,” he said.
“We have learned from this disaster and we continue to learn from it. We will continue making improvements and making our work safer as we move forward.”
Members of HMCS Kootenay lost on October 23, 1969:
CPO1 Vaino ’Ski’ Partanen
CPO2 William Alfred ‘Billy’ Boudreau
PO Eric George Harman
PO Lewis John Stringer
LS Pierre ‘Pete’ Bourrett
LS Thomas Gordon Crabbe
LS Gary Wayne Hutton
OS Michael Allen Hardy
OS Nelson Murray Galloway