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In Depth

CANADA'S SUBMARINES

Fire on HMCS Chicoutimi

Last Updated May 5, 2005

On Oct. 5, 2004, after a fire broke out on HMCS Chicoutimi, a Canadian submarine recently acquired from the British navy, the commander of the Canadian Fleet Atlantic, Commodore Tyrone Pyle, said the sub itself was beyond blame. The Canadian navy said a five-year, multimillion-dollar refit had ensured the seaworthiness of Chicoutimi, implying that the fire must have been caused by human error.

Nearly two months later, a CBC News investigation found that the British refit didn't fix all the technical problems on the sub, and two of those problems played a central role in the fire that broke out on the vessel, killing one officer:

  • An air vent in Chicoutimi's tower wasn't working because a nut had fallen off, just 24 hours into the vessel's first trip to Canada. Crewmembers had to leave two hatches open to fix the problem, and were working on it when a wave broke over the vessel, flooding the compartments below.
  • A series of electrical connectors in the captain's room that were soaked in the flooding had only one layer of waterproof sealant instead of the three layers that British navy specifications required.

The investigation also found that the British navy upgraded its specifications for insulating the electrical connections on Upholder-class vessels in the 1990s. Two additional layers of sealant were recommended to provide "backup protection." The sealant was added to the other three British subs as they were being built, but not to HMS Upholder, the vessel that would later be named HMCS Chicoutimi and sold to Canada.

On May 5, 2005, a Canadian naval board of inquiry released a 700-page report on the accident. It found that no one was to blame for the series of events that led to the fire.

"This was a combination of human, technical and operational factors that led to a tragic death," said Admiral Bruce MacLean, commander of the Canadian navy, at a news conference in Halifax.

The report concluded that Luc Pelletier, the Chicoutimi's captain, made rational and reasonable decisions the day the fire broke out.

Pelletier's decision to leave both hatches on the submarine open because of the mechanical problem with their vents was at the root of the inquiry. The board found that there was no way he could have predicted that a rogue wave would wash in, flooding the submarine with 2,000 litres of water and cause the events that led to the fire.

The board also recommended upgrading the electrical cables in the four Victoria-class submarines leased by the Canadian navy in 1998 from the Royal Navy. Other recommendations include placing more breathing masks in the submarines and in places that are easily accessible.

Timeline:

Oct. 2, 2004

Canada takes official possession of HMCS Chicoutimi, formerly HMS Upholder, at Faslane, Scotland, and the boat departs for Canada, a voyage expected to take about two weeks, with arrival in Halifax scheduled for Oct. 18.


Oct. 5, 2004

1000 ET (approximately)

Fire breaks out in an electrical panel on board HMCS Chicoutimi, which is travelling on the surface, scheduled to dive at about 1600 that afternoon.

"I will say that in a very short period of time, probably within two to three seconds at the most, the submarine was... the section that we were in was totally black. I know personally, where I was standing, I had a small flashlight or a torch, and I couldn't see it from about this distance [holding his hand just 15 centimetres from his face]. So it was very, very thick," says submarine captain, Commander Luc Pelletier.

The first few seconds were critical, and for one sailor, Lieut. Chris Saunders, the situation would prove fatal, as the decks filled with smoke and the sub lost power.

Lieut. Chris Saunders (DND/CP)

"Lieut. Saunders was in one of the compartments where we had a fire, and he was overtaken initially by that cloud of smoke that I was talking about that just basically came. I mean, that's normal in such a constrained space. So at that point, he did his best to be able to do the things he needed to do, but was overcome by smoke at a very early stage. But I mean, we're talking fractions of seconds here," Pelletier says.

Fortunately for the sailors, the submarine was still on the surface when the fire alarm sounded. Only the men in the conning tower were free of the smoke, but as the hatches were opened, the bridge became a huge smokestack. Lieut. Sebastien Latulippe is a sonar officer, and on that day he was assigned to the tower as officer of the watch. Suddenly he saw smoke and the radios inside went silent.

"The silence was very frightening because my first impression was that everybody in the control room was dead, and I was on the bridge waiting for instructions or communication on what was going on, the situation, and it came later, thank God," Latulippe says.

1015 ET

HMCS Chicoutimi sends its first distress call reporting by satellite phone to the Canadian navy operations centre in Halifax. The boat is approximately 230 kilometres off the coast of Ireland.

1045 ET

Another satellite phone call reports the fire under control, but battery problems with the satellite phone mean the report is sketchy.

"I can't recall the minutes, but I know we were fighting our way through this for two, three hours until the smoke was cleared properly and we could really say we were back on our legs and stable," Latulippe says.

By now, in every part of the submarine, the crew was scrambled. This was not just another drill but the real nightmare of a fire on board. Lt.-Cmdr. Douglas Renken was one of nine sailors treated for smoke inhalation. He was mid-ship near the electricity panels that he watched erupt in a shower of sparks, where the fire began.

"It was basically a shower of sparks and flame which quickly resulted in a lot of smoke being generated and filled the two-deck area in the middle part of the submarine very, very quickly," Renken says. "They were sparks with flames behind them. Basically... they basically shot out several feet out into the corridor from the electrical space."

HMCS Chicoutimi drifts without power off the Irish coast, Oct. 6, 2004 (AP Photo)

As the fumes spread, it was vital to put on a breathing apparatus, a mask, as quickly as possible, and that's what Lt.-Cmdr. Renken was groping to do.

"While I was trying to get out more masks, the boat went black, and I realized at one point that it was by the light of the fire across the passageway that I was seeing the locker I was trying to get into, and then I felt this incredible heat, and then I realized I was breathing in smoke. I started coughing and then involuntary bringing in more bad air," Renken says.

1315 ET

The British Royal Navy orders ships to go to the assistance of the Chicoutimi, including two frigates and two fleet auxiliaries. The United States navy is asked to divert a submarine support vessel to help.

In the conning tower, Latulippe recalls, "Dark. A lot of soot everywhere, but very scary because to see the state of everybody, we were all black. I mean, by the time... just standing on the bridge, I was all black of soot, so just imagine the guys down below."

For many of the sailors, they would spend the next five hours in their gas masks before the air circulation was restored to an acceptable level – and then they began the long wait for help.

1325 ET

In Halifax, the Canadian navy reports that nine crew members are suffering from smoke inhalation but none is seriously injured.

On board the Chicoutimi, the most seriously hurt, Lieut. Chris Saunders, seemed to be improving. "It was only later that they realized how sick he really was and was then airlifted off the ship with the help of British rescuers´┐ŻAt that time, Lieut. Saunders had been taken care of by our team of casualty clearance, and he was evacuated to another area where later on he was breathing on his own without a mask and the signs were looking better," Pelletier says.


Oct. 6, 2004

0830 ET

The first British rescue ship, HMS Montrose, a frigate, arrives on scene, and drops a doctor and a medical technician on board the Chicoutimi.

1000 ET

In Halifax, the navy announces the Chicoutimi has suffered significant damage and adds there was a second, less severe, fire in an oxygen generator.

1445 ET

The condition of three of the crew with smoke inhalation deteriorates. A British helicopter hoists the three men on board and heads for a British base in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. During the flight, Lieut. Saunders becomes seriously ill and the helicopter is diverted to the nearest hospital in Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland.

1800 ET

Prime Minister Paul Martin announces in the House of Commons that Lieut. Saunders died during the evacuation flight.


Oct. 7, 2004

0800 ET

British Coast Guard tug Anglia Prince reaches Chicoutimi and takes it under tow.

During this time crew members from the Chicoutimi are flown to nearby British warships for rest, showers and hot food.


Oct. 8, 2004

The U.S. submarine support vessel, MV Carolyn Chouest, arrives on scene and takes over the tow. With a faster tow, Chicoutimi will arrive in port earlier. The sub and its escort vessels head for the home port, Faslane, Scotland.


Oct. 10, 2004

1115 ET

HMCS Chicoutimi is towed up the Clyde by two Royal Navy tugs and docks at Faslane.


Oct. 13, 2004

Lieut. Chris Saunders is buried with full military honours after memorial services in Halifax and Faslane.


Jan. 13, 2005

HMSC Chicoutimi, welded to the deck of a Norwegian transport vessel, begins its trip across the Atlantic from Faslane, Scotland, to Halifax. The sealift is expected to cost Ottawa $2.7 million.


Feb. 1, 2005

HMSC Chicoutimi arrives in a Halifax harbour. It is expected to take a year to unload the sub and another year to repair the fire damage and upgrade the weapons systems.

Defence Minister Bill Graham confirms that the Canadian navy is reopening its investigation into the fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi. A navy spokesperson says the inquiry head wants to know why Chicoutimi had the hatches in its conning tower open in rough seas 230 kilometres off the coast of Ireland, letting water into the vessel that subsequently caused an electrical fire.


May 5, 2005:

The investigation into the fire on HMCS Chicoutimi finds neither sub captain Cmdr. Luc Pelletier nor his crew to blame. "It's the view of the board – and I agree – that no one is directly responsible for the fire and death of Lieut. Chris Saunders," says Vice-Admiral Bruce MacLean.

The report recommends the navy install "splash-proof" insulation on electrical wires to help prevent further electrical fires. It also recommends new procedures that would keep the hatches on subs' conning towers closed while they are on the surface.

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