The government calls the disaster “the darkest hours in the history of Canadian submarine service.” Today, officials revealed just how long and dark those hours remain for many.
Nearly 15 years since a fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi killed one Canadian submariner and injured several others, the Canadian Armed Forces released the preliminary findings of a long-term health study of the incident.
On Oct. 5, 2004, the Chicoutimi suffered a catastrophic electrical fire on its maiden voyage from Scotland to Canada. An international rescue effort was launched to save the disabled sub, but not before at least nine crewmembers were found injured and 32-year-old combat systems engineer Lt. Chris Saunders was killed.
On Thursday it was revealed that 60 per cent of the Chicoutimi’s crew suffered post-traumatic stress disorder; 21 per cent suffered asthma; and 15 per cent suffered depression in the wake of the disaster.
The Royal Canadian Navy says the 56 surviving sailors were 45 times more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD than a control group of Canadian submariners.
Exactly half of the crew were deemed medically unfit to sail within five years of the fire.
The long-term study analyzed the health of 250 people, including the 56 Chicoutimi crewmembers, 42 support staff who looked after the sub in the wake of the disaster, and 152 randomly chosen submariners as the control group.
Less than two per cent of the control group reported any of the three illnesses found in the crew. There were no recorded cases of cancer related to the incident in either the crew or the support staff, as initially feared by many.
The findings were released Thursday in Halifax, where the country’s newly minted navy commander and chief of staff apologized to the navy and called the report “unacceptably delayed.”
“We should have done better,” Vice-Admiral Art McDonald said, apologizing also for the lack of official communication with crew and families
“As the mental and physical well-being of our sailors and the care of our people is our first priority, we appreciate the significance of the study’s findings, and the importance of continuing to monitor the health of everyone who was exposed to the fire,” McDonald said.
The Chicoutimi is one of four used subs bought from the British in 1998.
The first stage of the study measured the overall health of participants in the five years before the fire and the five years after, according to the Department of National Defence.
The Chicoutimi has since gone on to successful service, based at CFB Esquimalt. In 2018, the sub spent 197 days at sea in the Asia-Pacific region, the longest-ever deployment for a Victoria-class sub.
The findings of the next phase of the study, covering the period from 2009 to 2019, are expected in the coming months.