Koote­nay vets can’t for­get that hor­ri­ble day in 1969

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - JEFF MAHONEY jma­honey@thes­pec.com 905-526-3306

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.

PHO­TOS BY GARY YOKOYAMA, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

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