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Canadian submariner 'really feels for' Argentines lost on sub in South Atlantic

Last Updated Nov 26, 2017 at 4:20 pm EST

The Canadian flag flys at half mast as the HMCS Chicoutimi makes its way into Faslane naval base in Scotland on Sunday October 10, 2004. (CP PHOTO/Frank Gunn)

HALIFAX – The captain of a Canadian submarine says his thoughts are with the families of 44 Argentine submarine crew members who have been lost in the South Atlantic for 10 days, but he tries not to dwell on the dangers of underwater travel while running his boat.

Cmdr. Peter Chu, the commanding officer of the HMCS Windsor, says he has been following news of the round-the-clock international search for the Argentine submarine, and says it has been “very unsettling” to see his fellow submariners in peril.

“We wish and are praying that their families and friends are being taken care of in this dire state, and a predominantly catastrophic and fairly unpredictable situation,” Chu says.

The Argentine navy says an explosion occurred near the time and place where the sub went missing on Nov. 15, and that even if it’s intact its crew may be running out of oxygen.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says Canada has sent a CC-144 Challenger aircraft with equipment to assist with the search and rescue efforts.

He says the twin-engine, long-range jet departed Halifax on Wednesday night in response to a request for assistance from the government of Argentina.

Sajjan said in a tweet on Thursday that his thoughts and prayers are with the submariners on the ARA San Juan.

More than a dozen airplanes and ships have been participating in the multinational search despite stormy weather that has caused powerful waves.

Search teams are ranging across an area of some 480,000 square kilometres, which is roughly the size of Spain.

Chu refused to speculate about what happened to the Argentine submarine.

He says all submariners are aware of the risks inherent to their job, but his crew has gone through extensive training to prepare for an emergency situation.

“I think if you’re an experienced submariner, I think you’re going to accept that our job is dangerous and rely on our training to get us through it,” says Chu. “We’re focused on doing our job professionally … and we’re not really dwelling on Hollywood scenarios.”

Chu says the Canadian Navy does not have deep-submergence rescue vehicles, which are often used in submarine rescues. The U.S. is one of the few countries to have such capabilities, he says, and would deploy its vessels to come to Canada’s aid if necessary.

The ARA San Juan is a German-built diesel-electric TR-1700 class submarine and was commissioned in 1985 and was most recently refitted in 2014.

Some relatives of the Argentine crew have lashed out at the navy for its response and for putting their loved ones at risk in a vessel that is more than 30 years old.

Canada’s four existing Victoria-class vessels, purchased from the U.K. in 1998, have a reputation for breakdowns and other problems.

Chu says the Windsor regularly undergoes maintenance checks to ensure that the submarine is in “top form” before it sets sail.

On Oct. 5, 2004, an electrical fire tore through another Canadian sub HMCS Chicoutimi while on its maiden voyage to Canada from Scotland.

Lieut. Chris Saunders, a 32-year-old father of two living in Halifax, died in the blaze.

Douglas Renken was one of nine sailors treated for smoke inhalation following the deadly fire onboard the Chicoutimi.

Renken says he can “only imagine what hell it is” for the families of the missing Argentine crew.

“Once a submariner, always a submariner,” Renken said by phone from his home in Sackville, N.B. “I really feel for them and their families. I absolutely feel for them.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version gave the wrong rank for Cmdr Peter Chu and incorrectly said that HMCS Windsor was the only Canadian sub currently operational