The weight of a Silver Cross

·5 min read

Debbie Sullivan wasn't surprised when her only son Chris announced that he would be entering the military. After all, he'd always been a daredevil and he craved adventure.

She had encouraged him to a life of public service. The Army seemed a perfect fit, as Chris explained to her, because he wanted "both feet planted firmly on the ground."

So when Chris Saunders called his mother to proudly announce he'd become a submariner with the Royal Canadian Navy, she was perplexed.

"This is the kid that wanted both feet planted firmly on the ground?"

"I said, 'You send me a photograph of you sky-diving and now you want to go under the water?' And that's when my fear set in because I'm claustrophobic … my fear set in at the thought of him under tons of water ... in a tin can."

Sullivan smiles and shakes her head at the memory of a son who has become an inspiration to her and the hundreds of students who attend Chris Saunders Memorial Elementary School in Quispamsis.

Canadian Press file photo
Canadian Press file photo

A 'tragic, tragic accident'

We're meeting in the school gym, 12 feet apart as dictated by current COVID-19 rules, to talk about her son, who died in 2004 following a devastating fire onboard a newly acquired submarine, HMCS Chicoutimi.

Lt. Chris Saunders was one of nine crew injured when water flooded a compartment in the boat, causing an electrical fire. Saunders was the only fatality.

He was 32 years old, and left behind his wife, Gwen, and two young boys, Ben and Luke.

"I've been told he immediately took charge and gave whatever orders needed to be given and was rushing back to his station when he collapsed," Sullivan says. "Because it was dark, he couldn't find the port to put his breathing apparatus into and the smoke and the gases overtook him and he passed out. And that's where they found him."

Asked if she was angry with the circumstances of her son's death, Sullivan said she understood it was, at its root, a tragic workplace accident.

"I wasn't angry," she said. "I went to the inquiry. I was there. I got the details and I'm satisfied with their findings. It was just a very tragic, tragic accident."

'I'm keeping his legacy alive'

Submitted by Debbie Sullivan
Submitted by Debbie Sullivan

Sullivan is matter-of-fact, almost stoic, in relating the details of her son's death.

She understood the risks of a life in the military, but knew that her son had been well trained.

It's because of him that Sullivan has been chosen by the Royal Canadian Legion to be this year's National Silver Cross mother.

Looking down at the medal she wears over her heart each Remembrance Day, she expresses the sentiment of every Silver Cross mother. "I feel I belong to a very exclusive club, one I wish I didn't belong to."

"Occasions like this that I wear it, I'm keeping his legacy alive. I keep his name alive because I speak it every day. I have his portrait on my wall and we speak every day and every night and several times through the day."

HMCS Chicoutimi was one of four diesel-electric submarines built for the British navy and subsequently sold to Canada. On her maiden voyage under Canadian colours, Chicoutimi was running on the surface through rough seas north of Ireland with her crew of 57, travelling from Faslane naval base in Scotland to Halifax.

On October 5, 2004, the fire broke out, leaving the boat powerless, adrift and in need of rescue. Saunders and two other crewmen were seriously injured while fighting the fire.

They were airlifted from the boat to get them to a hospital in Ireland, but Lt. Saunders died during that flight.

Haunted by images of Chicoutimi adrift at sea

Submitted by Debbie Sullivan
Submitted by Debbie Sullivan

"My husband had to tell me," Sullivan said. "He got a call from my ex-husband's wife, who told my husband. He had to tell me over the phone because I had planned on watching the news that night at work. And he knew he couldn't get to me in time to tell me in person. So he had to give that devastating news to me over the phone."

The images of Chicoutimi, drifting aimlessly and tossed about like a bottle on the whitecapped waters, haunt her still.

"I wasn't prepared at all. It was a numbing, numbing time for me. If it wasn't for my husband, I don't think I would have made it through it."

Sullivan had her own military training to help get her through this time. In fact, her son signing up to join the army so inspired Debbie that she signed up herself, with the reserves. "Why? Because I also wanted an adventure. I wanted to try something different. I needed something to fulfil my life at the time."

Her son's reaction? "Don't embarrass me," Sullivan recalls, laughing. "That's what he said, don't embarrass me".

Students follow the 'Chris Code' in his memory

Submitted by Debbie Sullivan
Submitted by Debbie Sullivan

Ultimately it's clear much of her strength comes from seeing the high esteem in which others hold her son. Members of the crew who sailed with Chris and served under him made her an honorary submariner.

But it is back home in Quispamsis that she finds her greatest solace, in the school named for her son. And where every day his memory is evoked by the students who follow the "Chris Code," turning his first name into an acronym for caring, honest, respectful, inclusive and safe.

"He'd be floored," Sullivan said. "He'd be like his mother, where we're not used to being in the limelight. But he would be pleased, because Chris loved kids and especially the little ones … he always gravitated towards the shy and the quiet ones and befriended them and helped them get by."

On Remembrance Day, Sullivan will be in Ottawa to lay a wreath in honour of all the Silver Cross mothers.

"My first thought will be of my son and I will also be thinking of all the other families who have lost their loved ones. And thinking of all the veterans," she said.

"Because of COVID ... I may not get to meet some of the veterans who are still alive, but I hope I do because I just want to thank them."