Kootenay vets can’t forget that horrible day in 1969
It was a little after 8 in the morning.
John Webster had just finished his 4 a.m. watch and was settling into toast and coffee in the cafeteria of HMCS Kootenay when, in a single instant, one that threw chaos over the next hours and shadows over lifetimes, he became chained to that day. Oct. 23.
They all did on that ship. Thursday, Oct. 23, 1969. The Kootenay was roaring through full-speed engine power trials in the English Channel. At 8:21 a.m., the starboard gearbox, grossly overheated (1,202 degrees F), exploded, and the explosion flung walls of raging fire and burning oil through the engine room and beyond.
Seven sailors died then and there, two later of injuries. Nine in all, and 53 seriously injured, many more again, less seriously in a crew of about 250. The worst peacetime disaster in the history of the Royal Canadian Navy.
Twenty crew members and several others with a connection to the ship visited Hamilton Thursday to tour HMCS Haida and reunite, as they do more regularly since 2009, when, after four decades, they finally started getting compensation.
They came for the Haida, yes, but as importantly, Doc Homer, retired Hamilton physician, whom many here know from the Parkdale Medical Centre.
“He was our saviour,” says crew member Tom Atkins of Doc Homer. Tom, living near Sarnia now, walks with a cane, struggles with PTSD; many of them do. “There have been suicides too,” says Tom, who remembers the explosion’s immediate aftermath.
“The ship was doing giant circles in the water” at top speed, careening out of control and listing, heat so intense there was a bulge in the iron hull.
Tom was 21 then. John, in the cafeteria, was 19. “I heard a loud bang,” John remembers. The sound has also been described as “a rising organ note.” “Everything went black, from the smoke of burning oil, and I saw a huge fireball fly past the opening to the cafeteria.” He was trapped, in pitch black.
Around 9 a.m., Dr. Joe “Doc” Homer got lowered onto the ship from a helicopter. He’d been flown over from the HMCS Saguenay, a sister ship on the task force fleet that the Kootenay was part of. The Saguenay saw the flare, Kootenay’s radio transmission being lost.
Doc tells me, as we stand together in a stillness at the deck rail of the Haida, “I had no idea what I was going into. There was no steering on the ship and it was going full out. (The crew could neither slow down the ship nor in any way control its movement.) Smoke covered it, and we couldn’t get to medical supplies or firefighting equipment.”
He was the first medical person on the scene. “The first things I saw was this poor kid trying to resuscitate a man already dead.”
One survivor from the engine room managed to make it through the passageway to the bridge. “His clothes were burned off him. He had third-degree burns to 50 per cent of his body. His skin was black. He reported, then passed out.”
The fire was so hot it melted aluminum ladders. “A sailor sprayed water from a hose at the door to the main magazine (ammunition locker), to keep it cool enough that the high explosives wouldn’t ignite.” The ship, he says, was like the pictures of Grenfell Tower.
Every man I met at the reunion talked about Doc Homer. Every one, often with moistened eyes. What he did that day, the difference he made, the many he saved, this doctor from North End Hamilton who couldn’t afford medical school if not for the navy.
And he would have none of it. “They are the story. I was a visitor on a ship of heroes,” he says, not with false modesty, but utter conviction. He talks of sailors who improvised firefighting; others who put on scuba gear, going to the keel to try to get at the fire.
The crew was commended for their bravery, the way they addressed the crisis. Every man I talked to shifted credit onto another. The motto of the Kootenay? “We are as one.”
John got pulled out of the cafeteria that day, somehow. Doc looked him up and down. “’You’re gonna be OK,’ he told me,” says John, a retired Toronto ... firefighter.
Hugh MacPhee, here from Sydney Mines, N.S., was also trapped. So relieved finally to get to upper deck. But once safely there? “There were dead people around you.” His friends.
“Some memories dim,” says crew member Art Schwartz, up from Florida for the Haida tour. “That day never gets any dimmer.”
The group concluded their tour with a “navy pusser” (shot of rum) and dinner hosted by Friends of the Haida. These incredible men. I can’t get them out of my head. The look in their eyes. Even now. Indescribable. They are owed every honour.
Along the bow of Haida are Kootenay veterans, from left, Tom Atkins, John Webster, Dave Stewart, Bill Martell, John Womak and Bill Jefferson.
HMCS Haida interpreter Sarah Simpson serves a tot of rum to Kootenay veteran Wayne Robinson, who served on the ship 1961-62.