LONDON (AP) – A sailor injured in a fire that disabled a Canadian submarine died Wednesday while being airlifted to a British hospital. The diesel-powered submarine drifted in the Atlantic as British ships battled through rough weather to reach the remaining 54 crew members on board.

Officials had initially described the Tuesday electrical fire aboard the HMCS Chicoutimi as small. But Commodore Tyrone Pile, commander of the Canadian Atlantic Fleet, said Wednesday it was “a major fire” that was worse than first thought.

Britain’s military airlifted Lt. Chris Saunders and two other injured sailors from the vessel earlier Wednesday. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said Saunders had died during the airlift but provided no further details.

“He gave his life serving his country, and we owe his family our deepest condolences,” Martin told Canada’s House of Commons in Ottawa. “We pay him homage and we make known our deep respect to his family.”

Rescuers had intended to take the three injured men to a hospital in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, but had to quickly change course to Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland, because Saunders’ condition deteriorated and he needed immediate treatment.

Lawmakers in Ottawa observed a moment of silence in honor of Saunders, a father of two.

There was no immediate word on the condition of the two other crew members brought to Sligo for treatment, but the hospital said they were able to walk. Canadian officials said a total of nine people had suffered smoke inhalation from the blaze.

The six others did not require hospitalization and remained aboard the submarine, adrift about 115 miles northwest of Ireland.

No injuries were reported among the remaining members of a crew that originally numbered 57.

Three British naval vessels and two tug boats planned to tow the sub to a Scottish naval base, but a Canadian naval officer said rough seas might delay any attempt get a tow line to the vessel until Friday.

The lead rescue ship, frigate HMS Montrose, reached the Chicoutimi at about 1 p.m. on Wednesday, and pulled alongside to drop off medical staff and supplies and assess the damage, the Ministry of Defense said in London.

“They’ve got emergency lighting on board. It is probably going to get a little bit cold, but they have sufficient blankets and other means to keep warm on board the submarine,” Pile said. “It’s going to be uncomfortable with the movement of the sea.”

An Irish naval vessel, LE Roisin, tried to reach the sub Wednesday but turned back after being damaged in heavy seas, the Irish Defense Forces said.

Another British ship laden with food and fuel and carrying a medical team and helicopter was also on the way.

Laviolette said the submarine would likely be towed back to the Clyde naval base in Scotland.

Pile said the blaze damaged the commanding officer’s cabin and an electrical equipment room on a separate deck. A second separate small fire broke out in an oxygen generator but it was quickly smothered, he said.

The Chicoutimi, a diesel-powered patrolling submarine formerly called HMS Upholder, was only turned over to the Canadian navy on Saturday and had been on its way from Britain to the Canadian port of Halifax.

The incident has highlighted concerns about four secondhand subs Canada recently purchased from Britain.

A deal for the four Victoria-class submarines was agreed in 1998, but the handover experienced lengthy delays amid escalating costs and technical problems. Critics say the subs have a checkered history, cost too much and were not in good shape.

The submarines were originally built in the late 1980s and early 1990s for the British navy. They were mothballed in 1994 when Britain decided to stick with an all-nuclear submarine force.

It is the last of the subs to be delivered to Canada, but making them operational has been delayed by the need to repair cracks found in key valves after the vessels were brought out of storage.

The Times newspaper reported last week that the four submarines had been “dogged by serious malfunctions and corrosion.”

BAE Systems, which was given the contract to prepare the submarines for the Canadian Navy, declined to comment on the report.

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