With a Canadian flag and white officer's cap on his coffin, navy Lt. Chris Saunders was buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday, the casualty of a frightening submarine fire at sea that threatened both the crew of the sub and the future of Canada's submarine fleet.
Saunders, the first Canadian sailor to die in service in 49 years, was found lying on the floor in the blackened hold of the HMCS Chicoutimi, minutes after an electrical fire filled the vessel with acrid smoke and cut power and engines on the submarine's maiden voyage under the Canadian flag last week.
The boat pitched and rolled for five days in a North Sea gale off the coast of Ireland as Canadians followed the rescue efforts, with questions mounting over the wisdom of trying to keep the country's four-vessel underwater fleet. Canada's defense minister on Tuesday ordered the navy's three other submarines to dock until the cause of the fire was discovered.
Saunders, 32, the father of two young boys, "died as a hero, one who gave his life for his friends," chaplain John Finlayson said at the service.
Canada's navy officers are defending the acquisition of the four diesel submarines from Britain in 1998 against complaints that the country had gotten the equivalent of used-car lemons. The process of fitting the subs for sea already has run three years and $150 million more than expected, at a time when the Canadian military is stretched by peacekeeping missions and U.S. pressures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Canada has a small military -- about 53,000 service members, compared with 1.4 million Americans on active duty. The Canadian navy includes 12 frigates, four destroyers and about 10,000 sailors. The U.S. Navy, at about 375,000 service members, has more than 200 large ships.
"Most Canadians were probably surprised to know we even had submarines," said Joel Sokolski, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston.
But since Oct. 4, the front pages of Canada's newspapers have been filled with photos of the stricken sub. The government's first reports -- that the fire was small, damage minimal and injuries minor -- unraveled through the week. When the sub was finally towed back to port, the crewmen described a harrowing ordeal.
Just as the 57 crewmen were going through their checklists to dive under the wind-driven North Sea about 85 miles off the coast of Scotland on Oct. 4, sparks described by one crew member as "the size of golf balls" erupted from an electrical display panel near the control room.
Thick black smoke quickly filled the 231-foot sub, so dense that Cmdr. Luc Pelletier said he could not see a flashlight more than six inches away.
"Imagine being in a mask in total darkness. You couldn't even see the fire, you could only feel the heat," the skipper told reporters in Scotland on Monday. "It's one of the worst nightmares of a submariner."
Sailors grabbed for the emergency breathing gear and groped their way through the blackness to try to deal with the emergency, finding Saunders. Smoke poured out of the conning tower as if it were a chimney; an officer with a battery-driven portable satellite phone managed to send off a Mayday.
A British helicopter made a dangerous and dramatic airlift to take Saunders and two others from the heaving deck of the powerless vessel, but the lieutenant was dead when they arrived at an Irish hospital. Tow boats slowly dragged the crippled sub back to Scotland.
Canada has periodically owned submarines since 1914, when two were secretly bought in Seattle. In 1987, the Canadian government proposed an ambitious expansion of the fleet to a dozen nuclear-powered subs that would patrol the country's long coastlines and the polar ice cap to its north. That plan died with the end of the Cold War and the reluctance of Canadians to spend so much on their military.
But navy officials kept pushing for submarines, and in 1998, they got what Canada considered a good deal. Britain, moving to a nuclear fleet, had mothballed four fairly new submarines in 1994, and sold them to Canada for about $750 million, most of that to be paid in trade for the use of Canadian airspace to train British military pilots.
But the process of putting the vessels back to sea was plagued with delays and rising costs, as the subs were found with rusting hulls, cracked pipes and faulty equipment. One was discovered to have a dent in its hull. The Chicoutimi, the last of the four to be refitted, was on its maiden voyage from its Scotland shipyards, preparing to submerge for a 16-day undersea trip to Canada when the fire broke out.
Critics said the Canadian navy wants the subs mainly to train with the U.S. Navy's fleet of 72 nuclear submarines, which use the Canadian diesel-powered craft in exercises.
"The submarines are to sustain Canada's profile and prestige," said Wesley Wark, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto.
The navy has convened a board of inquiry in Faslane, Scotland, where the Chicoutimi now sits, to determine the cause of the fire. The three other subs are in port in Halifax and British Columbia. Officials insist that the grounding order was precautionary and that the subs will put to sea again.
"This was a prudent decision," Vice Adm. Bruce MacLean, chief of the maritime command, said Tuesday.