Rates of PTSD, asthma significantly higher in crew after navy sub fire: survey

Crew members who were on board a navy submarine that caught fire in 2004 suffered significantly higher rates of PTSD, asthma and depression in the five years afterwards, according to a newly released military health survey. 

Sixty per cent of the surviving 56-person crew of HMCS Chicoutimi were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following the fire that killed one sailor, Lt. Chris Saunders, and injured several crew. 

Another 21 per cent were diagnosed with asthma and 15 per cent were diagnosed with depression.

Fifty per cent of the crew were deemed medically unfit to sail after the fire. 

The sailors were compared to two control groups, including 42 people who did work on the submarine and were exposed to its interior after the fire and 152 randomly selected submariners.

Just one per cent of those control group sailors were diagnosed with PTSD and two per cent were diagnosed with asthma and depression. 

Lt.-Cmdr. Brent Jones said he hoped it would be reassuring to the crew that the study didn’t find any other large clusters of illnesses.

The results of the first part of the health survey were released in Halifax on Thursday. It studied the long-term health effects of the crew after the submarine flooded and caught fire off Ireland on Oct. 5, 2004.

Just days earlier, the sub had left Faslane Naval Base in Scotland after undergoing a refit and was heading to its new home port at CFB Halifax. The submarine was one of four purchased by Canada from the British government in 1998. 

Apology to families for report delay

Vice-Admiral Art McDonald apologized Thursday to the crew and families for a lack of communication and a delay in releasing the report.

“We should have done better and we will do better,” said McDonald. 

The study looked at the health of the sailors between 1999 and 2004, the years before the fire, and between 2004 and 2009.

The navy is now deciding how to proceed with the second phase of the study, which will look at the crew’s health over the last 10 years.

There were no cases of cancer reported among the crew in the first five years following the fire. 

The military said one crew member died three years ago, but did not provide further details. CBC has learned that sailor died from lung cancer.

Another crew member, Derek Speirs, who was a cook on Chicoutimi, developed skin cancer, which has since been cured. 


Retired Master Seaman Derek Speirs says the day the fire broke out on HMCS Chicoutimi left him changed. (CBC)

Speirs said he also suffers from regular pain after a PTSD-induced seizure, which left him with multiple back fractures and a pinched nerve. He said the day of fire forever changed him. 

“I’m reminded when I wake up in the morning, when I feel it in my back,” said Speirs, who has since retired. He travelled from his home in Quebec to attend Thursday’s announcement.

The study’s findings did not surprise Speirs, who said the level of illness is likely higher. 

“We’re all sick, we’ve all got issues. Some are worse off than others.”

The crew remained on board the submarine among the ashes for five days following the fire. 

“The soot, we ingested it, we had it on our skin, we breathed it in,” he said. “I tried my best during the five days to wipe the counters, so I wouldn’t be making sooty sandwiches with what we had. But it was everywhere. We all ingested it.”

Only 10 people from the original crew remain on active duty in the military.

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