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How the explosion aboard HMCS Kootenay helps prepare Canadian sailors 50 years later

It has been 50 years since the Royal Canadian Navy experienced its worst peacetime disaster. Nine sailors were killed and 53 others were injured when HMCS Kootenay exploded. But the navy learned from the tragedy and opened a training facility near Halifax to prepare soldiers for disasters at sea. Global News goes behind the scenes at the facility that now bears HMCS Kotenay's name.

Fifty years after the Royal Canadian Navy experienced its worst peacetime disaster, the memory of HMCS Kootenay explosion is continuing to prepare the next generation of Canadian sailors.

The Oct. 23, 1969 explosion and fire that crippled the HMCS Kootenay killed nine and injured 53.

The Restigouche-class destroyer was conducting trials in the English Channel when its starboard gearbox exploded.

READ MORE: Memories of HMCS Kootenay explosion still strong 44 years later

It was later discovered that a bearing in the gearbox failed as its casing had been improperly installed.

The oil that was intended to circulate through the gearbox as coolant instead overheated, reaching an estimated temperature of 650° C before causing the gearbox to explode and sending a fireball through the engine room and along the main passageway of the vessel.

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Many of the crewmembers trained as firefighters were injured in the explosion, which resulted in three of the ship’s divers strapping on their scuba tanks to assist in rescue operations.

Eventually, the fire was brought under control due to the actions of the vessels’ crew.

HMCS Athabaskan, retiring navy ship, takes last sail around Halifax harbour
HMCS Athabaskan, retiring navy ship, takes last sail around Halifax harbour

Cmdr. Neil Norton, the commanding officer of HMCS Kootenay during the explosion, would later write that “… a less professional crew could easily have finished the day in life rafts.”

The destroyer would be repaired and would continue to play a role with the Royal Canadian Navy until it was decommissioned in 1996. In 2000, she was towed out of Esquimalt to be sunk as an artificial reef off Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

The memory of the disaster aboard HMCS Kootenay and the actions of its crew lives on in the form of the navy’s damage control training centre in Purcell’s Cove, about 15 minutes outside of Halifax.

READ MORE: Survivors of HMCS Kootenay explosion remember shipmates who died in 1969 tragedy

The facility was opened in 2002 and named Damage Control Training Facility Kootenay (DCTF Kootenay) in recognition of the disaster.

Survivors of the explosion and their families continue to attend an annual remembrance ceremony at DCTF Kootenay while every sailor undergoes training at the facility, learning how to battle fires and floods as they would on a ship if the situation arose.

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They also learn about the actions and bravery of the crew members aboard HMCS Kootenay in 1969.

— With files from The Canadian Press