HMCS Kootenay survivors mark 51st anniversary since tragic explosion at sea

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Navy News / November 20, 2020

By Ryan Melanson

It was a morning of somber remembrance on October 23, 2020, at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, as survivors and members of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Kootenay’s family gathered, as they do every year, to commemorate the accident at sea that changed their lives forever 51 years ago.

The fire and subsequent explosion aboard Kootenay killed nine members of the crew, injured more than 50 others and left each sailor on board with difficult memories that remain today. Many still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental and physical health issues, stemming from the incident.

The fire began when a bearing in the ship’s starboard gearbox failed during full power trials off the coast of England on October 23, 1969, causing an explosion that ripped through the engine room and sent a ball of fire through the ship’s passageways. The crew fought for hours to save their ship, acting bravely under great pressure and while full of worry for their safety.

“Here on the shores of Halifax Harbour, Kootenay’s home port for many years, we commemorate those Kootenays who died tragically in service to their country. We commemorate their shipmates who still hurt and grieve, and we commemorate the families of the fallen and the survivors,” said retired Captain (Navy) John Pickford, who delivered the eulogy for the day.

He wasn’t a member of the 1969 Kootenay crew, but his father was the ship’s first Commanding Officer in 1959, and he said he’s honoured to stay connected with the survivors and wider Kootenay family.

Fewer people than usual were in attendance due to the COVID-19 public health restrictions, but the gathering at the Bonaventure Anchor Memorial still included Kootenay survivors and their families, local leadership of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), and representation from various levels of government.

“It was the worst peacetime accident in the history of the RCN, and we’re gathered here today to remember the nine crew members who were killed 51 years ago, to honour the 53 others who were wounded, and to recognize the other survivors, whose courage and determination saved the lives of their shipmates as well as their ship,” said Rear-Admiral Brian Santarpia, Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic, in his remarks during the ceremony.

He noted the major improvements in firefighting and damage control on ships that came following the disaster, including Damage Control Training Facility Kootenay that opened in 2000 in honour of the victims and survivors.

“Increased equipment, better training, thorough maintenance procedures and improvements in engineering in our ships is Kootenay’s legacy,” he said.

This year also marked the first time survivors and RCN members wore the new Kootenay ribbon, which was introduced in 2019 as part of initiatives marking the 50th anniversary, and is now to be worn each year on October 23. Attendees left the ribbons and flowers on the memorial following the ceremony.

Able Seaman (Retired) Allan “Dinger” Bell, who was severely wounded after narrowly escaping the burning engine room on that tragic day, said he was particularly glad to see the Anchor Memorial itself in such fine shape for the occasion after recent repairs, and to have additional names now added to the memorial, which is intended to honour all RCN sailors who died while serving their country during peacetime.

“We added 46 names last year. The old policy was to bury people overseas if they passed, so their bodies aren’t here, but now their names are here, and that’s very important for the families. It’s much bigger than just Kootenay,” he said.

Crew members of HMCS Kootenay lost on October 23, 1969 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” Bourrett
  • Leading Seaman Thomas Gordon Crabbe
  • Leading Seaman Gary Wayne Hutton
  • Ordinary Seaman Michael Allen Hardy
  • Ordinary Seaman Nelson Murray Galloway