Engineer recalls tragedy of Kootenay explosion

Funeral service for the nine deceased crew members of HMCS Kootenay with the burnt and damaged ship in the background at Devonport, UK, Oct. 27, 1969. The ceremony was held on board HMCS Saguenay, a fellow ship that had served alongside Kootenay in the naval exercise.

Funeral service for the nine deceased crew members of HMCS Kootenay with the burnt and damaged ship in the background at Devonport, UK, Oct. 27, 1969. The ceremony was held on board HMCS Saguenay, a fellow ship that had served alongside Kootenay in the naval exercise.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

It’s been 50 years since a deadly explosion and fire ripped through HMCS Kootenay, but the “awful aftermath’ still haunts 71-year-old Englishman Robert Twitchin.

The east coast tragedy is still considered the worst peace-time accident in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), killing nine sailors.

It all went wrong in the engine room of the Restigouche-Class destroyer on the morning of Oct. 23, 1969, as the ship underwent a full-power trial 200 nautical miles off the coast Plymouth, England.

The explosion created a blackened bulge in the starboard side of the vessel. Kootenay was towed approximately 200 miles to the Davonport Royal Dockyard in Plymouth.

Twitchin was a junior member of a six-man team of civilian engineers that assisted in the investigation and subsequent repairs. He was a mechanical fitter and worked on the removal of the ship propellers, and then on the investigation that involved the dismantling of drive trains and the ship’s problematic gearbox and bearings.

Two years previously, on the Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier HMS Eagle, Twitchin had also witnessed the terrible aftermath of a fatal fire in B boiler room, an experience that helped him confront the “devastation” awaiting him and his fellow engineers as they descended into the Kootenay engine room.

Truly Shocking

Prior to their investigation, the team was briefed by their Technical Supervisor Albert Benson, who advised them to “tread lightly” and sensitively in their investigation. That advice would very soon make sense.

“When we first got down into the Kootenay engine room and saw the extensive destruction, including the ripped-open starboard gear case cover and the damage from the exploding lubricating oil vapour, it was truly shocking,” said Twitchin. “The whole compartment had been blackened by the explosion and fire with lots of debris all around, and there was an overwhelming burnt smell throughout the ship.”

After his first visit to the engine room and learning of the fatalities and seeing the immensity of the tragedy, Twitchin said he immediately picked up on the “deathly quiet sadness” of the few RCN personnel who had stayed with the ship.

The team carried out their investigation work over two weeks, in their search for the cause of the explosion. Twitchin says that “from the very beginning of the investigation, just by looking at the shattered gear case cover, it was immediately clear there had been no monitoring of the gear case bearing temperatures.”

The engineers quickly realized that neither of the port or starboard gear case covers were fitted with local thermometers, but instead had screwed blanking plugs fitted in their place.

It was also noted by the team of engineers that the blanking plugs were caked in old paint, which implied they had not been removed regularly.

“It would have been impossible for engine room watch keepers to monitor a bearing overheating; in essence the ship was running blind,” said Twitchin.

Horrific Accident

The board of inquiry would publically determine the explosion was caused by insert bearing shells in the starboard gearbox that had been installed backward. This situation disrupted the flow of lubricating oil causing an overheating of the bearing and eventually the ignition of the lubrication oil.

Seven of the nine men killed in the explosion were working in the engine room, which had only three survivors.

Commander (Retired) Al Kennedy was one of three engine room survivors and was awarded a Wound Stripe medal by the RCN in a ceremony at CFB Esquimalt in May 2019.

Earlier this year, on Feb. 8 in Halifax, Able Seaman (Retired) Allan Dinger Bell was awarded the Wounded Stripe by Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd, Commander Royal Canadian Navy.

A third shipmate who escaped the engine room fire alive, John MacKinnon, died in 2008. He did not receive the Wound Stripe because it is not awarded posthumously.

Kennedy suffered a host of injuries from the explosion and fire including severe burns to approximately 30 per cent of his body, smoke inhalation, chronic pain syndrome and PTSD. He recalled the incident upon receiving his medal.

“The climb was only seconds but seemed like an eternity. 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 infant son.”

On Oct. 23 in Halifax, the RCN hosted a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the explosion. While the tragedy had devastating effects, it ultimately “shaped and redefined” the RCN’s firefighting and damage control practices making them core competencies, said Vice Admiral Art McDonald, Commander of the RCN during his address.

In the days, months and years following the impact of the disaster, the experience weighed heavily on Twitchin and the team of engineers at Devonport Royal Dockyard.

“After being so involved in coping with the aftermath of such a horrifying accident, it is very simply a sober reminder of the threat posed by the compact machinery on a warship,” said Twitchin. “With superheated steam, high-pressure hydraulics, high pressure air, and electrical supplies everywhere, there are immense potential dangers to ship’s staff. When I look back over my 43 years in Davenport Royal Dockyard, the memory of the Kootenay explosion will always be there with me.”

Lest We Forget:

AB Nelson Murray Galloway
AB Michael Alan Hardy
LS Pierre Serge Bourret
LS Thomas Gordon Crabbe
LS Gary Wayne Hutton
PO2 Lewis John Stringer, CV, CD
PO1 Eric George Harman, CD
CPO2 William Alfred Boudreau
CPO1 Vaino Olavi Partanen, CV, CD

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  1. Ivo Krupka says:

    A very welcome article adding some interesting detail (e.g.,blanking plugs). It would be good, in my view, always to mention the crew who were awarded the newly created bravery medals (2 Crosses of Valour (CV) awarded posthumously. Citations accompanying the medal presentation at Rideau Hall in 1973 https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/62880666/citations-for-bravery-for-crew-of-hmcs-kootenay

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