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Service honours victims, survivors of navy’s HMCS Kootenay disaster

Retired captain (navy) John Montague wipes a tear as he recounts the events of 48 years ago aboard HMCS Kootenay following an event at Herring Cove on Monday. 
Retired captain (navy) John Montague wipes a tear as he recounts the events of 48 years ago aboard HMCS Kootenay following an event at Herring Cove on Monday. TIM KROCHAK/THE CHRONICLE HERALD

For four decades, retired navy captain John Montague did not speak about the tragedy that shook the Canadian Forces in 1969, when HMCS Kootenay suffered an explosion and fire, killing nine crew members and wounding dozens of others.

But in a nationally broadcast interview on the 40th anniversary of the disaster, Montague finally told a reporter about his experience as a 23-year-old sub-lieutenant, and immediately broke down crying.

He was overcome with memories again at a subsequent graveside ceremony and was told to go see a doctor.

After that, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Montague still gets emotional thinking about the loss of lives and horrific injuries inflicted on his mates, and the aftermath that has affected each of the crew members — and their families — to this day.

“For 40 years, I didn’t talk about it,” he said on Monday, after a commemorative service at the navy’s Disaster Control Training Facility on Purcell’s Cove Road.

“The amazing thing is 48 years later I’m still going for counselling, which even shocks me, not to mention my wife and my daughters and friends.”

Montague and his shipmates Cyril Johnston, Rob Robichaud and Clark Reiffenstein — all junior officers — had come off watch when disaster struck the Kootenay, a destroyer escort with about 240 men aboard, as she was performing high-speed power trials off the coast of England on Oct. 23, 1969.

The fire and smoke from an explosion in a starboard gearbox left many of the survivors suffering from PTSD, although they didn’t know it until years later. Three crew members took their own lives sometime after the tragedy.

Montague and Johnston recalled the heroics performed by Reiffenstein and Robichaud, who died about three years ago of cancer. They didn’t make themselves out to be heroes, but their descriptions of the actions they took that day leave little doubt.

The fire that hit the ship and filled her with toxic smoke has been called an explosion, but Montague said he slept through the initial incident.

“I wouldn’t be here talking to you if the phone didn’t ring in my cabin,” he said. “It was my cabin mate calling me from the bridge saying, ‘The ship’s on fire. Get out.’

“Those who were awake said it was a whooshing sound, like ‘shoo,’ but no bang. Amazingly, the ship filled up with this black diesel smoke which was toxic and poisonous. It’s like that old saying, the fire may kill a few people, but the smoke kills most people.”

Wearing nothing but underwear, Montague joined two others and they felt their way through thick black smoke until they got out onto the cold steel deck.

Montague, one of the ship’s diving officers, said he was freezing, but remembered he had some clothes in the diving compartment. There he found Reiffenstein putting gear on.

“I thought he was going to jump over the side to save himself with a scuba tank,” Montague said, tearing up at the memory. “On the contrary, he said, and this is critical to the whole day, he said, ‘I heard there’s still men trapped down below. I’m going down to get them.’ I said, ‘Well wait for me.’”

Montague got separated from Reiffenstein, but he and Johnston found a dead crewman blocking a door to the boiler room. They moved the body to a hatchway, where others were taking casualties on deck, and went back.

Montague remembers getting some men out, while Johnston said he was never sure what happened, because it was impossible to see.

The incident, understandably, left a permanent scar on both men, though.

At Monday’s ceremony, Johnston read the official commemorative eulogy for the dead on behalf of Robichaud’s daughter Patty, who was unable to attend this week.

In an interview, Johnston said it was Robichaud who first went back into the smoke — without any breathing apparatus — to check on his cabin mates, trying to make sure everyone got out.

But they had already run through the smoke to get topside, acting solely on survival instinct.

Going back in, even with scuba gear on, just seemed like the right thing to do, said Johnston.

It was partly the firefighting and casualty-clearing training they had already received, he said, and partly adrenalin.

“We had a particular skill set that we could use,” Johnston said. “It’s probably the first time they ever used scuba tanks — I don’t know if they ever used them since then — in fighting any fire. It’s just something that was ad hoc. But it was what we did.”

For 30 years, the navy did not mark the Oct. 23 anniversary of the disaster, but since 1999 has done so annually. In 2002 the military opened a new building at the disaster training facility and named it after the Kootenay.

Cmdr. Pete Lebel, commandant of Naval Fleet School Atlantic which includes the damage training facility, said the school learned a lot of lessons from the Kootenay disaster and uses those lessons in training the nearly 7,000 officers and sailors who come to the facility annually.

Johnston said some crew members still don’t talk about what happened on that day 48 years ago, but he and Montague both say it has been therapeutic to open up.

And Johnston, who stayed with the navy for a couple of years and then went into public service with the Department of National Defence, said it’s an important part of history that is in danger of being lost.

“There’s a lot of acts of what people did. They’re not recorded,” he said.

“I hope some more people will talk about what happened, what they did, what they experienced, because usually it’s just the officers up there talking.”

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