The Canadian Navy of Yesterday & Today 


Gearbox Explosion

This section of the website is still in DRAFT. The text here has been summarized from several published and unpublished sources, and should not be taken as the definitive account of this event. Any and all errors in the following text should be taken as that of this author. Please provide comments, corrections, anecdotes, and/or equipment identifications to the author, Sandy McClearn, at smcclearn@hazegray.org

Accident at Sea

KOOTENAY at sea.

PO2 Ski Partanen (left) in May, 1950 at graduation from HMCS CORNWALLIS. Photo courtesy of Neil Goodwill.
On the morning of October 23, 1969, HMCS KOOTENAY was exercising in UK waters with a Canadian Task Group consisting of HMC Ships BONAVENTURE, TERRA NOVA, FRASER, ST. LAURENT, OTTAWA, ASSINIBOINE, MARGAREE, and SAGUENAY. The Task Group was headed home, westward from the English Channel, and at 0605 hours when approximately 200 miles off Plymouth, England, KOOTENAY and SAGUENAY were ordered to separate from the main group and carry out full power trials.

SAGUENAY completed her trials before 0800 hours and launched her Sea King helicopter, and KOOTENAY started hers at around 0810 hours. The engine room received the order for FULL AHEAD - BOTH ENGINES, and the throttles on both port and starboard turbines were opened up. Both port and starboard turbines of KOOTENAY's Y100 steam powerplant reached maximum revolutions, in the range of 5,750 RPM, and the main reduction gearboxes transferred power to the propeller shafts as shaft speed reached 221 RPM (rated maximum shaft speeds were between 220 RPM (heavy draught) and 227 RPM (light draught). The ten engineering crew members present in the engine room were stationed forward of the control console at the forward end of the engine room, including the Engineering Officer (EO) and Chief Engine Room Artificer (CERA). The engine room crew and their duty stations were as follows:

Lt. Al Kennedy  (EO)
CPO1 Vaino ’Ski’ Partanen  (CERA)
CPO2 William Alfred ‘Billy’ Boudreau   (Engine Room Chief)
PO1 John MacKinnon  (starboard throttle)
PO1 Eric George Harman  (port throttle)
LS Pierre “Pete” Bourrett (recording at the console)
LS Thomas Gordon Crabbe  (fire and bilge pump)
LS Gary Wayne Hutton  (torsion meter readings)
AS Allan "Dinger" Bell  (main engine temperature readings)
AS Michael Allen Hardy  (main engine temperature readings)

At 0821, the temperature in the starboard gearbox reached a critical level (estimated at 650 degrees C) and the gearbox exploded, sending a fireball forward in the engine room and up through both engine room hatches into the main flats (main fore-aft passageway), also named Burma Road. Smoke immediately filled the ship. Orders were given to close the throttles and evacuate the engine room. Due to the flames from the gearbox, the aft hatch was inaccessible, and flames were being directed towards the forward hatch by the circulation fans. Of the  four engine room crew who managed to escape via the forward hatch (Kennedy, MacKinnon, Bourrett, and Bell), one (Bourret) perished right at the top of the hatch and the rest suffered severe burns. The remaining six engineering staff all perished in the engine room. The engineering officer made his way to the bridge, and before collapsing from his injuries, he reported on the explosion and stated that the Emergency Shut-offs in the flats had to be activated immediately to stop the flow of steam to the still-operating engines.

Two additional crew members also died. OS Nelson Galloway died of smoke inhalation during the fire, and PO John Stringer died several days later on BONAVENTURE as a direct result of smoke inhalation.

Fire damage to one of the engine room access hatches in Burma Road.

The aluminum casing of the starboard gearbox has been ruptured by the explosion.
The starboard gearbox with the cover removed.
The starboard gearbox with the cover removed.

A crew member stands by the blackened control console at the forward end of the engine room.
Despite the explosion, and the closing of the turbine throttles, both turbines (now-unmanned) were still receiving steam from the boiler room and the ship was charging ahead at full speed. In fact, the steam-driven lube oil circulating pump in the starboard gearbox was still working, and continued feeding the flames with oil. The wheelhouse (located below decks on this class of destroyer) filled with smoke and had to be abandoned, presumably leaving the ship out of control until the emergency helm station could be manned. To make matters worse, the turbo alternator (steam driven electrical power generator, and main source of ship's power) was knocked out of commission by the explosion, and the ship's diesel generators were not rigged for auto-start in the event of power failure. As a result, ship to ship communications were disrupted during a critical period as available fire fighting equipment was running out. Most of the fire fighting equipment, and Chemox breating apparatus, was stored in the main flats, which was filled with smoke and flame.

Looking forward and to starboard, with the control console to the right of the photo.

The heat of the fire was so intense that it melted this engine room ladder, which made access to the engine room by fire fighting crews more difficult.
The forward diesel generator was started, restoring ship's power, and at 0836 KOOTENAY was able to broadcast a message stating her emergency and requesting assistance. SAGUENAY directed her Sea King to KOOTENAY to assess the situation. This Sea King ended up ferrying equipment, supplies, and personnel from other ships in the Task Group.

At 0840, the fire was at its height, and the ship was short of available fire fighting equipment. Seven crew were dead, and numerous more were incapacitated by burns or smoke inhalation. The fire was heating up the aft 3"/50 gun ammo magazine, and more crew were tied up relocating ammunition away from the shared bulkhead. The bulkhead was sprayed down, but this reduced water pressure and reduced effectiveness of fire fighting efforts in the engine room. The aft generator had not yet been started, incapacitating the aft fire pump.

At 0900, the boiler room crew were still at their posts shutting down the boilers and therefore the flow of steam to the engine room. A bulge was starting to form in the starboard hull plating adjacent to the gearbox, and visible signs of the fire were visible on the ship's exterior including smoke from vents and scorch marks on the hull exterior. The fire gained ground between 0930 and 1000 due to pressure loss from spraying the magazine, until an engineering rating was eventually found to start the aft generator thus making the aft fire pump available for service.

At about 0945, LCDR David Jones arrived by helicopter from BONAVENTURE to relieve Lt. Kennedy and take over as Engineering Officer.

LCDR Jones reported to the bridge, and in his report he noted the following:

"a) Major fire in engine room out of control.
b) Known casualties in area of fire.
c) Previous E.O. burned and transferred to BONAVENTURE.
d) Boiler room shut down.
e) Number 1 and 3 diesels supplying electrical power.
f) "F" section isolated electrically.
g) Fire fighting teams had entered the after engine room hatch and gone part way down the ladder, but intense heat and lack of visibility precluded further entrance.
h) Lt/Cdr. Schwartz was taking charge of fire fighting along with Cmd.O Moffat.
i) Ventilation to engine room stopped.
j) Fire main pressure low (35 PSI)."

It would not be until 1010 that the fire could be considered under control. When CPO2 Robert George entered the engine room via the forward hatch at 1015, the heat was so intense that it was necessary to keep a low velocity fog on him at all times. The fire was put out between 1030 and 1100, and after 1100 crews could enter the engine room and remain without being driven back by the severe heat. KOOTENAY was rigged for tow, and SAGUENAY was tasked to start the tow which was underway by 1114. The engine room was cooled down between 1130 and 1215, at which point the damage assessment and removal of the six bodies from the engine room began.
Damaged instrument panels in the engine room.

A valve is pictured in front of a fire-gutted bulkhead.
KOOTENAY was badly damaged, and only remained afloat due to the efforts and sacrifices of her crew. Seven of her crew members, present in the engine room for the full power trial, had died, and two more crew members died of injuries sustained outside the engine room. Fifty-three crew members were injured.

The tow was subsequently taken over by the Royal Navy tug SAMSONIA (formerly Foundation Josephine) on October 24th and KOOTENAY returned to the UK under SAGUENAY's continued escort. KOOTENAY was dry-docked and her propellers were removed to prepare her for the tow to Canada, which was undertaken by the Dutch tug Elbe on November 16th. KOOTENAY arrived in Halifax on November 27th. 

A Board of Inquiry was set up immediately following the accident. Captain Chris Pratt (ret.) was commanding the 5th Squadron at that time, and he was flown ashore to conduct the Board of Inquiry in Plymouth. He recalls: "To help me with the inquiry I had an engineer officer, a medical officer and a damage control specialist. A civilian designer from NDHQ, who was the one to note the wrongly installed bearing liner, came to offer his advice. The liners had been designed to fit either port or starboard gearbox, but care was needed to install them the correct way round. Apparently it's not unheard of for a bearing to "wipe" without catastrophic results. That had probably happened during an earlier full power run, and probably when I commanded the ship, for I was her skipper from January 1965 until June 1966. But exactly how it happened was only a matter for speculation, for as you know, fire requires fuel, heat, and oxygen. There was a vent pipe...from the gearbox. It ran up through the PO's mess to the upper deck, and witnesses reported a sound like that of a pipe organ in the PO's mess before the explosion. The theory was that initially a fire had started using the small amount of oxygen present in the gearbox. This created an overpressure up throught the vent, which made the sound, and then had extinguished itself for lack of oxygen. The pipe cooled, outside air was drawn down into the gearbox, and it exploded."

It was concluded that the insert bearing shells had been installed backwards in the starboard gearbox four years previously, which cut off the proper flow of lubricating oil, leading to overheating of the bearing and the ignition of the lubrication oil. It was also noted that the explosion and fire had killed and injured a significant portion of the engineering staff, thus incapacitating a large part of the crew most experienced in damage control measures. This had a particularly deleterious effect on the organization and effectiveness of the damage control and fire fighting crews in the aftermath of the explosion. After the accident, the ship's captain, CDR Neil Norton, wrote that "...a less professional crew could easily have finished the day in life rafts".

Captain Pratt also comments: "The "PTSD" factor was disturbing, even thought the term didn't come into use for another twenty years or more. It wasn't wartime, when enemy damage might be expected, and the event came as a total shock. Of course we're trained to expect the unexpected, and I was sure that everyone had behaved correctly, and some had gone far beyond what could have been expected. But there was certainly no counselling. Vice Admiral Griffin, the Admiral at Plymouth, offered to find homes in the neighbourhood, to send everyone on a few days leave, which was done during the Second War, but the two ships' companies preferred to stick together, which I could understand. There was such a widespread syndrome of self-blame, even by those who had done far more than their duty, which is characteristic behaviour after a shock. I feel particularly for Sub Lieut Reifenstein, who put on scuba gear to crawl along the Burma Road. He blamed himself bitterly for not being able to find the steam shut off valve." Partly as a result of the incident, Sub Lieutenant Reifenstein later committed suicide.

The accident on KOOTENAY ultimately influenced the Canadian Navy's training in Damage Control down to the present day, and in fact the Navy's East Coast Damage Control training facility is named after KOOTENAY. This remains the worst peacetime accident ever experienced by the Canadian Navy.
A fire-blackened instrument panel in the engine room.

Crew members who lost their lives in the accident include (from http://www.acpoa.ca/news/oct2006/oct2006.pdf ):

CPO1 Vaino ’Ski’ Partanen
CPO2 William Alfred ‘Billy’ Boudreau
PO Eric George Harman
PO Lewis John Stringer
LS Pierre “Pete” Bourrett
LS Thomas Gordon Crabbe
LS Gary Wayne Hutton
OS Michael Allen Hardy
OS Nelson Murray Galloway

With the exception of PO Stringer, who died in Bonaventure during the return voyage and who as a result was buried in Canada, these were the last Canadian servicemen killed overseas whose bodies were not repatriated.
A wreath laying ceremony at sea.

A funeral service, presumably on the quarterdeck of SAGUENAY in Plymouth. Note KOOTENAY in the background, with scorch marks on her starboard side amidships.


Barrie, Ron and Macpherson, Ken. (1996). Cadillac of Destroyers: HMCS ST. LAURENT and Her Successors. Vanwell Publishing Ltd. St. Catherines, Ont.

Forbes, Gord. (2007). Article "An Incident on the High Seas" in Soundings Magazine. http://www.noac.ottawa.on.ca/fallsoundings07.pdf

Heimpel, Roger, LCDR. (2007). Article on gearbox explosion. Provided by author.

Jones, David, LCDR. (1969). Report on explosion. Provided by author.

Kingston, Gaylord. (2006). Article "Tragedy at Sea" in Crown and Anchor. http://www.acpoa.ca/news/oct2006/oct2006.pdf

McLeod, John, CPO1. (1999) Article "KOOTENAY tragedy remembered 30 years later". Source unknown. Courtesy Neil Goodwill.

Pratt, Chris, Captain (ret.). (2009) E-mail correspondence.

RCN Publication. (1968). Machinery Digest for Destroyer Escorts, 205, 206, 257 and Classes. Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa.

Unattributed timeline of events by speakers CDRs Walton and Yanow, date unknown.  http://www.forposterityssake.ca/Kootenay1.htm

Unless noted otherwise, all photos are courtesy of LCDR Roger Heimpel, CFNES Damage Control Division.

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