Remembering shipmates

Once a week Hugh MacPhee and about a dozen or so former shipmates gather for coffee, swap stories as old friends do, and sometimes share memories that 42 years on remain as dark as the brew in their cups.

They are survivors of the Canadian navy's worst peacetime disaster, the Oct. 23, 1969 explosion and fire that crippled the HMCS Kootenay, killing nine and injuring 55.

The destroyer was doing power trials in the English Channel when its starboard gearbox exploded, sending a fireball through the engine room and along the main passageway.

McPhee was among almost 100 members of the original crew who gathered at a seaside park on Sunday to lay wreaths and remember their fallen friends.

"Our ship's motto was 'We are as one' and we still gather strength from that," he said his voice shaking a bit. "We talk about it, help each other, because a lot of the guys suffered from post-traumatic stress afterwards."

MacPhee said he was in the cafeteria above the engine room early that morning and the pressure from the blast shook him badly.

It was chaos as crewmembers moved to escape the smoke, help their buddies and put out the fire.

MacPhee says he was brought up top where other crew members were assembled.

"The worst was at the same time they had the bodies coming up from the engine room and they were laying them with us."

Rear-Admiral Dave Gardam, the commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, told the survivors that the tragedy helped the navy improve its firefighting techniques and the way it addresses military families.

Gardam said it was two or three days before the magnitude of what had happened was shared with anyone back home.

Worried families were left to scrounge details from media reports, a situation Gardam said would never be tolerated in today's forces.

"Oh my God. I cannot imagine the pain, the suffering we put families through," said Gardam after presenting a special award recognizing the crew's bravery. "But that was then and we didn't know what we didn't know. Today, we would never do that."

At the time the navy didn't have repatriation protocols for the dead so four sailors were buried at sea and four were interred in a British cemetery.

The ninth victim, who died in the sick bay of HMCS Bonaventure, was the only one brought back to Halifax for burial.

Following the Kootenay explosion the Canadian Forces system of honouring bravery and courage was also revised and six crew members were among the first to receive the Medal of Bravery and Star of Courage.

The Kootenay was retired from service in 1996.

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