This is a tragic incident which I remember well.  I had just finished a Long Course in HMS Mercury and was preparing to fly out to Singapore to join the frigate HMS Rothesay [F107]. I knew a lot about the Canadian Navy, about the names and types of its ships and about the naval base at Halifax Nova Scotia having served there at HMS Ambrose in 1963/64.  HMS Ambrose was the shore depot ship for the 6th Submarine Squadron and I was in HM S/M Auriga.

This story was sent to me by a good friend of mine who was an officer connected with the 'old' RCN, one Andy McCullough, and I retell it here, apart from its obvious sad overtones, for two basic reasons. The first is that the  dead from this incident were buried in our country and in the waters off it [foreign lands to the loved ones of these men] with the exception of one deceased man who was buried in Halifax in Canadian soil, and secondly, because of the explanation of how and why the Canadians treat and revere their personnel who die whilst on duty in foreign parts, and their repatriation policy post this event. The Canadians, the British and the Americans see too many repatriations today from Afghanistan, and whilst their deaths are hard to bear,  it is comforting to know that they lay in the soil of their mother country.

40 years after

The Kootenay explosion

Taking stock of Canada 's worst peacetime naval disaster

October 22, 2009

By Sandra Bartlett and Susanne Reber, CBC News

After more than 40 days at sea, the sailors of HMCS Kootenay {launched 1959 and decommissioned n 1995} 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 the Kootenay turned its bow west toward Canada , the captain decided to test the engines by pushing them to maximum power.

HMCS Kootenay under a full head of steam.  

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 the 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.

Fireball

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 the 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 badly burnt engine room hatch of the Kootenay

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 fire fighting 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."

Help arrives

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 the 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 the Kootenay.

Former sub-lieutenant John Montague says there was great relief when their sister ships, the Bonaventure and the Saguenay , arrived.

"Helicopters from other ships were coming over, dropping off supplies, dropping off people, fire fighters.

"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.

The 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 the 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 .

Kootenay's legacy

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.

The 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 aluminium and won't melt.

Four of the Kootenay dead were buried at sea, off the English coast. (DND)  Note that the Kootenay is in the background of this picture with scorch marks on her starboard side quite visible just aft of the waist. This shows HMCS Saguenay leaving Plymouth UK to bury the dead of Kootenay at sea.

What's more, every area of the ship has at least two hatches or exits and fire fighting 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 fire fighting 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 the 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.