Debbie Sullivan begins each day the same way: “Good morning, Chris,” she whispers to her son’s portrait on the wall of her tidy, country home on New Brunswick’s Kingston Peninsula, outside Saint John. Before bed, she tells him all about her day. “I love you,” she’ll add. “I miss you.”
The rituals began 16 years ago, when her son, Lieutenant Christopher Saunders, a 32-year-old officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, was killed in a fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi off the coast of Ireland.
On Sunday, Ms. Sullivan – whose son inspired her to join the army reserves in her 40s – was named this year’s Silver Cross Mother. She says it’s an “honour” to take on the role, which is bestowed each year by the Royal Canadian Legion.
On Nov. 11, when Ms. Sullivan lays a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on behalf of the country’s Silver Cross Mothers, her thoughts will be with all parents grieving a child, she says, and with Chris – a “jokester,” a perfectionist, an adventurer and “a real social butterfly.”
Lt. Saunders loved puzzles and books and had a knack for drawing out the shy kids in his class. He also had a near-photographic memory. He’d get his mom to recite the first three words from a page he had read; the rest he could recall from memory, “word for word.”
He was still in his teens when he left for the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Quebec on a full scholarship.
Ms. Sullivan says she barely recognized the polite, bilingual giant of a young man who returned five years later. Gone was her sarcastic teen. A late growth spurt had added five inches to his lanky frame. He now stood more than six feet tall – towering over his mom, at 4-foot-11, and his dad, Hugh Saunders, at 5-foot-7. He’d stayed an extra year in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., to perfect his French.
Ms. Sullivan had by then married Stuart Sullivan, a former artilleryman who was working as a semi-truck driver. She earned her Class 1 commercial driver’s licence so she could join her husband on the road, delivering rubber to South Carolina and paper to the Kodak plant in New York State.
She would call her son – when he wasn’t travelling with the navy – from the road. Lt. Saunders often brought mementoes home for her. She still has a carving of an elephant fighting a cobra from a sailing to Africa.
After college, Lt. Saunders was stationed in Halifax, where he met his wife, Gwen. He adored military life and considered his mates family – at least until he had two boys of his own. Ben, his firstborn, began his first year at Dalhousie University this fall. Luke, now 16, was barely four weeks old the day his father saw him last, before he flew to Scotland to board the Chicoutimi.
On Oct. 2, 2004, Lt. Saunders left the Scottish port of Faslane for a 16-day undersea trip to Canada aboard the Chicoutimi. It was the ship’s maiden voyage under the Canadian flag. (The refurbished sub had been purchased from Britain.)
Before it could descend, the crew was forced to leave its two hatches open to fix an air vent in the ship’s control tower. From nowhere, a rogue wave washed over it, sending two tonnes of water crashing into the vessel, flooding the control room.
Sparks described by one crew member as “the size of golf balls” erupted from an electrical display panel, causing a fire. Within seconds, the ship was engulfed in acrid, choking black smoke – so thick, the captain later said, he couldn’t see the light from his flashlight.
In the blackout, Lt. Saunders, a combat systems engineer, groped his way up a ladder to his emergency command post. But he couldn’t find an emergency breathing mask and collapsed. He was later found unconscious in the blackened hold, less than a metre from a mask.
A North Sea gale had meanwhile blown in, making a late-night rescue impossible. Overnight, the powerless, rudderless submarine tumbled helplessly in heaving, eight-metre swells. Lt. Saunders and two other crew members were in critical shape, suffering smoke inhalation.
The following day, Lt. Saunders was strong enough to climb to the deck of the submarine to be flown out by a Royal Navy helicopter, his mother says, but struggled to winch himself to the chopper in the force nine gale. The British crew, recognizing he was fading fast, laid him gently on the helicopter’s floor, rerouting to nearby Sligo, Ireland. He was able to open his eyes one final time before losing consciousness. He was pronounced dead in hospital.
Mr. Sullivan was forced to relay the news of Lt. Saunders’s death to his wife over the phone. Her son was the first sailor to die in service in Canada in decades. His death was a major story in the Canadian and British media. “It was the worst news any parent could possibly get,” Ms. Sullivan says. “Devastating, numbing, horrifying.”
She says she wants other grieving parents to know they are not alone.
“My door is always open. They don’t ever have to feel like they can’t talk to someone who knows exactly what they’re going through.”