Navy to tow stricken submarine as fury grows in Canada

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The Independent Online

Damaged and powerless, the Canadian submarine which has been stranded in the North Atlantic for three days after a fire was to be towed back to a British port today.

Although the rough weather abated enough last night for Royal Navy ships to attempt the difficult feat of attaching towing cables to HMCS Chicoutimi, a political storm was brewing in Canada over the purchase - dogged by troubles - of the submarine and three others from the Ministry of Defence. Britain could face a multimillion-pound claim for compensation.

Yesterday, it became clear that the fire on board the vessel was more extensive than first disclosed. One member of the 57-strong crew died from smoke inhalation and two others were in hospital in Ireland, one in intensive care. Others are being treated on board the submarine, about 100 miles off the north-west of Ireland.

The fire broke out on the second day of its journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia, from Faslane naval base in Scotland, where it had been formally handed over by the Royal Navy on Saturday after a costly refit which had run three years late.

One of the submarine's diesel engines was restarted on Wednesday night, which reinstated hydraulic systems and gave sufficient power for air to circulate. Steering has also been restored.

Commander Tyrone Pile, head of the Atlantic Command of the Canadian Navy, said yesterday that attempts to secure a line would be made when conditions allowed.

He rejected suggestions that the significance of the fire, which spread over two decks and needed all the boat's fire-fighting equipment to extinguish, had been downplayed, stressing that communications had been difficult. The fire started in a control panel and spread through the commanding officer's cabin and an electrical equipment room. The crew also had to deal with a second, smaller fire in an oxygen generator in the torpedo room.

Last night some 400 people were involved in the rescue, including several Royal Navy vessels - two of which were tugs - and an Irish Navy ship. A Canadian Navy ship, the HMCS St Johns, is on its way.

Commander Andy Webb, captain of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose, the first vessel to arrive at the scene on Wednesday, said everything possible was being done to reach the remaining 54 crew, despite treacherous weather conditions. He said: "Our priority is the safety of the crew, but we are in constant dialogue with them and they are in great spirits. There is no immediate risk but the situation is very serious. We are watching developments carefully." He said that it was hoped that a towline would be attached before dark.

The crewman who died, Lieutenant Chris Saunders, 32, who was married with two children, was among three airlifted to Sligo General Hospital in Ireland on Wednesday. His condition was believed to have deteriorated during the helicopter journey.

The Canadian Navy said any suggestions of a compensation claim against the Ministry of Defence would have to wait until the outcome of an inquiry into the crewman's death.

In Ottawa last night, the opposition Conservative party was seeking a vote of no confidence in the recently elected minority Liberal government, although it was not expected to be brought down.

Peter MacKay, deputy leader of the Conservative party, said: "Certainly, the purchase itself is being brought into question ... it is something of such great concern that it makes one question the government's decision-making. Why that submarine had begun its trek across the Atlantic Ocean, given the condition, remains to be seen."

The deal has already caused controversy in Canada, with many questioning why the country, a member of Nato, even needed a submarine force.

HMCS Chicoutimi is the last of four non-nuclear submarines sold by the Ministry of Defence for C$750m (£333m) although the total cost, with repairs, has escalated to C$897m. The refits have been dogged by technical faults, a lack of replacement parts, and rust, particularly on the Chicoutimi, which is said to have restricted its ability to dive.

Steven Staples, a defence analyst at the independent Ottawa think-tank the Polaris Institute, said: "There is no clear reason why we needed these subs. One theory is that the Canadian Navy has come under severe pressure from the United States to have subs so that they could play 'the enemy' in exercises. It has been disastrous for us."