Commemorating and learning from the HMCS Kootenay disaster

Capt(N) J. Jeffrey Hutchinson

CFB Esquimalt Base Commander Capt(N) J. Jeffrey Hutchinson salutes during a memorial service for members of HMCS Kootenay at Memorial Park in Esquimalt on the 53rd anniversary of the tragedy. Nine members of the RCN’s former Restigouche-class destroyer were killed and several others injured following an explosion in the ship’s engine room on the morning of Oct. 23, 1969. Photos by S1 Kendric C.W. Grasby.

Peter Mallett, 
Staff Writer

Victoria’s military community held a first-of-its-kind memorial service to pay respect to the victims of the worst peacetime accident in Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) history.

“We remember the brave sailors who fought to save their fellow crew members on their ship, we remember those who suffered both physical and mental injuries, we remember the families who were forever changed that day,” said Captain (Navy) J. Jeffrey Hutchinson, CFB Esquimalt Base Commander, who presided over the ceremony. “In their memory, we commit to doing all that we can do to help ensure this tragedy is never repeated.”

The memorial service on the West Coast was held at the Esquimalt Cenotaph to remember the 53rd anniversary of the HMCS Kootenay tragedy. Nine sailors died, and several others were injured when a violent engine room explosion occurred aboard the East Coast-based Restigouche-class destroyer at 8:21 a.m. on Oct. 23, 1969.

The explosion occurred while Kootenay was conducting sea trials 200 nautical miles off the coast of Plymouth, England, caused by bearing shells in the starboard gearbox being installed backwards. This disrupted the flow of lubricating oil, causing an overheating of the bearing and eventually igniting the lubrication oil. The resulting fireball raced through the ship’s engine room, up its hatches, and onto the main passageway of the ship.

Retired commander Al Kennedy was one of several survivors who attended the memorial service in Esquimalt. He was one of three sailors that made it out of the engine room that morning. Kennedy says he can still remember every moment of his escape from the engine room’s flames, smoke, searing heat, and carnage.

“The climb was only seconds but seemed like an eternity,” he said. “The only thing going through my mind was a feeling of sadness that I was going to die and not be able to see my three-month-old son.”

Two members of Kootenay were posthumously awarded the Cross of Valour Medal for their actions: Chief Petty Officer First Class (CPO1) Vaino Partanen, an Engine Room Artificer who remained in the engine room to report to the ship’s bridge and died moments after fulfilling his efforts, and Petty Officer First Class Lewis Stringer, a Supply Technician who died of the effects of smoke inhalation after organizing an evacuation of men from the ship’s galley following the explosion.

Two other crew members received the Star of Courage for their actions. Chief Petty Officer Second Class (CPO2) Clément Bussière was the Petty Officer in Charge of the boiler room and remained there to ensure there was steam pressure for firefighting efforts and to shut down the ship’s boilers. Sub-Lieutenant (SLt) Clark Reiffenstein, a Navigation Officer, made repeated efforts to rescue crew members.

Two crew members received a Medal of Bravery. CPO1 John Gillingham, the ship’s Petty Officer, organized firefighting activities aboard despite being off-duty at the time of the explosion. CPO2 Robert George, Kootenay’s Senior Hull Technician, organized damage control and firefighting parties and flooded the ship’s magazine area with water to prevent further explosions.

Following extensive repairs, Kootenay returned to service and subsequently transferred to Esquimalt on Feb. 12, 1973. 

CPO1 Al Darragh, Base Chief at CFB Esquimalt who helped organize this year’s ceremony, served as a Marine Engineer (Stoker) in Kootenay’s boiler room more than two decades after the explosion. He said logistical adaptations had followed the tragedy.

“Everyone onboard was painfully aware of the tragedy and what had happened that fateful day,” CPO1 Darragh said. “Many safety changes had occurred onboard as a direct result of the explosion, and in the end, proved extremely beneficial to the operation of RCN ships.”

Memorial services held on the East and West coast remembered members of  HMCS Kootenay who died on Oct. 23, 1969:

  • Chief Petty Officer First Class Vaino ‘Ski’ Partanen (Chief Engine Room Officer Artificer);
  • Chief Petty Officer Second Class William Alfred ‘Billy’ Boudreau (Engine Room Chief);
  • Petty Officer First Class Eric George Harman (port throttle);
  • Leading Seaman Pierre (LS) ‘Pete’ Bourrett (recording at the console);
  • LS Thomas Gordon (fire and bilge pump);
  • LS Gary Wayne Hutton (torsion meter readings); and,
  • Able Seaman Michael Allen Hardy (main engine temperature readings).
  • Petty Officer Lewis John Stringer and Ordinary Seaman Nelson Murray Galloway were among the dead.

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