Who is Ashley Cheeseman?

The Masthead News Article:

Who is Ashley Cheeseman?

On a sunny Thursday in 1978, Local MLA Grant Brown unveiled the plaque in the presence of the Lakeside Fire Department, Royal Canadian Legion #156 and the Cheeseman Family. Stories were shared and the community reflected on the loss of one of their own.

Who is Ashley Cheeseman? I ask this question as I stand in the park that bears his name. Today the Ashley Cheesman Memorial Park is filled with with kids playing, gardeners weeding, and a t-ball game about to begin. It is the heart of the diverse communities it serves.

When asked, many drew blank stares or shrugged their shoulders. Some went so far as to make up stories speculating events that could have led to a dedication. Grand stories about a brave firefighter, a heroic rescue, and a dockyard explosion, or military secret missions were told.

An online search produced nothing useful with many dead ends. I continued to search offline and at the Nova Scotia Archives where old newspapers and other historical documents are saved on microfilm for researching. The only document that I could find was an obituary dated two years before the dedication.

Finally, it was a post on Facebook asking “Who is Ashley Cheeseman?” that led to a phone call to Ashley’s own son, who shared his memories from that day. Jeff Cheeseman, an eight year old boy at the time, proudly remembers the dedication to his father who died at a young age of 36 years old. Jeff told me stories about his father’s commitment to family and community and how the community grieved at his loss.

What shocked me, was the story Jeff shared about his father’s involvement in the worst peacetime accident ever experienced by the Canadian Navy. An event that would reshape disaster training and ship design of the fleet for many year to come.

On the morning of October 23, 1969, Ashley was getting breakfast in the ship’s cafeteria, which is located just above the engine room of HMCS Kootenay. They were heading west from England after taking part in training exercises with the Canadian Task Group.

The Kootenay received orders “Full Ahead – both engines,” and broke from the group for one last exercise. Then the unexpected happened: the gear box for the ship’s engine exploded and a fireball filled the engine room blowing out the hatches and filling the main flats and engulfing the cafeteria. Hot gas and dark smoke spread quickly throughout the ship and within minutes the fire knocked out the ship’s communications system.

To make things worse, the fire fighting gear was being blocked by flames and many of the trained firefighters were killed or injured in the initial explosion. The dark oily smoke quickly traveled into the wheelhouse forcing the crew to flee. For the next 40 minutes, the ship traveled in circles at full speed while the crew fought the fire with scuba gear and attempted to rescue the injured. A true testament to the bravery, skills, swift actions of the crew on the Kootenay is that she remained afloat despite the heat and flames.

After two hours of fighting the fire, the crew had extinguished the flames and was able to get the ship back under control. The events of the day had injured 53 people and nine sailors had lost their lives.

Like many sailors from the HMCS Kootenay, Ashley returned home with injuries from that day that would ultimately cut his life short. Ashley’s legacy may have been developed through his time in the Navy, but his story belongs to many more than just those who wear the uniform. A public park is a fitting tribute to a man who not only saw the value in family but also community, but also sacrificed to ensure all of us could live in a country with the freedom to enjoy them.

Kids play in the park named after this man, But who is ashley Cheeseman? | http://www.themastheadnews.ca

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