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Terror at sea: the Kootenay fire: an eyewitness account of one of the Canadian Navy's most devastating peacetime tragedies.

FIRE AT SEA! THOSE words have been the dread of every mariner since ships began to navigate the Earth's waters. Wooden commercial and military ships of the past have been struck by lightning in the fiercest storms and few have survived to record their logbook duties, while others have had their cooking fires spilled in rough seas. However, nothing compares to an engine room explosion on board a ship loaded to the gills with highly flammable fuel and weapons munitions. That dread became a reality to the over 200 men serving on board the HMCS Kootenay on October 23, 1969, some 200 miles west of Plymouth, England. Ironically, the Canadian Parliament was due to reconvene its 28th session on this day and a White Paper on NATO defence policy was on the agenda.

Fulfilment of NATO commitments, sovereignty' and the defence of North America in cooperation with the United States were among the top priorities of the Defence White Paper. Seemingly contrary to these priorities was a directive to "assist the civil powers" under the classification of "Priority One" at Canadian Forces Headquarters. The origin of this "Priority One" and its relation to Canadian foreign policy was not clarified. HMCS Kootenay would play a role in the Standing Naval Force Atlantic (STANAVFORLANT) to fulfil an obligation to a collective security arrangement with NATO. STANAVFORIANT stems from exercises Matchmaker One (1966) and Matchmaker Two (1967), the year that Egypt and Israel were engaged in bailie, and with the expulsion from Egypt of the Canadian United Nations peacekeepers. By 1968, when Soviet tanks tread into Czechoslovakia, STANAVFORLANT was compiled of NATO ship squadrons.

HMCS Kootenay, launched in June 1954, was a Restigouche-class frigate built during the United Kingdom's 1954-55 frigate building program. This class of ship was similar to the Canadian St. Laurent class and the British-modified Type 12 General Purpose frigates. The Canadian and British frigates were built with an average length of 360 feet, a 40-foot beam and weighed between 2,400 and 2,900 tons. The 30,000 ship horsepower produced a verified speed of 28 knots from two propeller shafts, attached to two double reduction geared turbines and two fresh water rub boilers with an added advantage of salt-water conversion equipment.

For military purposes, the ships were adjoined to NATO; the intents and priority included the advantage of interchangeable machinery. The implication of salvageability and possible experimentation with these similar types of machinery are far-reaching if not economically and militarily capable. In 1958 HMCS Kootenay had a complement of 290 men; later, in 1969, it rated as the heaviest armed ship of its class in the Canadian fleet. It was attached to the First Canadian Escort Squadron for North Atlantic deployment with a ship's complement of approximately 230 men.

The Kootenay had engaged in a number of anti-submarine exercises across the North Atlantic since fuelling up in early September 1969 at St. John's, Newfoundland. Apart from getting her wakes cut up by speedy Russian guided-missile destroyers (by which I was very impressed), fuelling off a British tanker in extremely rough water of the North Sea and a couple of weeks rest in Aarhus, Denmark, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Then in mid-October, after spending more than 40 days at sea on exercise in the North Sea with seven other Canadian warships, the Kootenay left Aarhus and split away from the NATO fleet and docked in Plymouth, England for unspecified engine room labour. During the course of this labour a British frigate of a similar class was also undergoing repairs in a British naval dockyard.

During the morning of October 23rd HMCS Kootenay was sailing independently, as was HMCS Saguenay, away from the rest of the squadron in a full-power exercise. I was off watch that morning; otherwise I would have been busy around the engine room hatches.

On the quarterdeck I was engaged in conversation with the life-buoy sentry when we were startled by a muffled boom and flames with black smoke billowing out of a starboard hatchway. A man working on the ladder in the hatchway had his face and beard slightly singed. I ran to the hatch opening, grabbed onto his weather jacket and pulled him clear. In shock, the sailor was unable to talk and only waved his arms in the direction of the after-diesel compartment. At that moment I sensed that we were about to be overcome by what could be a serious situation. This wasn't an exercise.

I could still hear a diesel engine running. I started to go down the opened hatch into a coal-black cloud of smoke; men coming up the ladder told me to get off. I swung my body down off the ladder's hand rail and cracked the bottom of my chin on the top of somebody's head, nearly knocking myself unconscious. I did eventually get down to the deck about 15 feet from the engine room, after being shoved and poked in the eyes by men feeling their way, trying to get out. I asked them what happened. A voice yelled back, "The engine room, get out!"

I began feeling my way. It was so black below I couldn't even see the daylight above the open hatch. The heat and smoke were so intense my hands and face-were scorched, and I felt like I was breathing in sooty acid. It was as if I had fallen into a hot, dusty incinerator.

Over the deafening sound of the diesel engine I faintly heard men scrambling by me, choking and bumping their heads against equipment along the bulkheads. Some fell down or had tripped over others, stronger ones helping others, but all were feeling their way out from the darkness. As one man stumbled onto the ladder leading to the upper deck, others blindly grabbed a piece of the clothing of the man ahead of them, enabling us to get out faster. As I reached the surface of the hatch I gulped in as much air as I could. There were men still caught below, unable to see, breath or get out fast enough.

The crew had been going about their regular early morning routines--taking a shower, eating breakfast, and performing their duties--when the explosion rocked the ship at 8:20 a.m. When the emergency stations alarm sounded, more men came out on the rush. The ship was in a state of turmoil. Bulkheads containing hatches and doors above the engine room had become hot within minutes and the section base teams, our selected firefighters, were ordered to stations to fight the blazing inferno. Although everyone on board the ship had received a compulsory firefighting training course to prepare them against a variety of possible ship fires, when the Kootcnay's engine room exploded, everyone on board was caught off guard. Initially they had not realized that this was the real thing and not another part of a simulation during our NATO exercise.

When the seriousness of our situation became apparent, a leading seaman appointed me to help get men out and aid in their care and bring blankets from the men's sleeping quarters, which hadn't been touched by the fire. As I was bringing several of these blankets forward to the command position, I stopped at amidships above the engine room to watch some of the men going down to fight the fire. A leading seaman asked me if I want to try my luck down there, pointing towards the engine room. I told him that I was ordered to help guys on the signal deck, to which he replied, "You better get to it, as there are too many people in the way already."

From the signal deck 1 went back aft of the ship to the hatch where I first saw the explosion occur. Someone had closed the hatch to the sleeping quarters below this one, probably thinking it was part of an exercise. Only when the air began to become unbeatable in their quarters did the men come up to see what was going on. Some of the men who had been nearer to the explosion area suffered greater exposure and had to be held down by several others to be injected with morphine.

Red flares were fired into the sky as distress signals and numerous radio messages were sent over the air. Within 15 minutes, two submarine trackers and a helicopter flew over us to acknowledge receipt of our distress calls. In about a half hour four nearby warships and the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonarenture were being used as floating hospitals and firefighting stations. These ships maintained a distance from the Kootcnay in case she blew up entirely. Doctors, medicine, professional firefighters and their equipment were lowered onto our ship by helicopters. 1 assisted during a helicopter transfer of a badly burned man whom I believe died on the flight to the Bonaventure.

Our ship had been sailing out of control for some time after the wheelhouse had been ordered abandoned. The men in the wheel-house stayed in there until they could no longer see the piloting instruments or breathe, but not before they mechanically jammed the steering mechanism to prevent the rudders from moving back and forth. Swinging rudders could have caused the ship to roll from side to side, hindering the efforts of the firefighters and rescuers.

It seemed as if our ship's speed increased as it burned below, but I think this was the result of the port engine propelling us through the water on a slight angle. I later learned that the explosion had occurred in the starboard engine gearbox and, in order to get the fire under control, our main fuel supply had to be shut off. After this was completed it wasn't too long until our ship bobbed around, helplessly engulfed in smoke and flames.

Next mouth: "She's gonna Blow!" The desperate efforts to save HMCS Kootenay reach the most critical phase.
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Title Annotation:THE COLD WAR
Author:Steele, John Gordon
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Feb 1, 2011
Words:1654
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