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‘It quickly became evident that this ship might be lost.’

By Paul Russell

When a fire broke out aboard HMCS Protecteur on Feb. 27, 2014, the crew battled the flames throughout the night in an effort to save the ship, and their lives. Padre (Major) Mike Gibbons, a United Church chaplain, was recently recognized by the Governor General with a Meritorious Service Medal for his efforts that night.

On what happened that night: We had been out to sea for the better part of two months. Shortly after supper that night, we had a power outage. When the fire alarm sounded, the mood and energy instantly changed. The ship’s executive officer confirmed there was a fire in the engine room — a shocking piece of news. As the fleet commander later said, “Imagine a three-storey school gymnasium, completely open and engulfed in flames.” It was getting dark, and we were more than 600 kilometres from Hawaii with no help in easy reach.

On his response to the emergency: We set up a makeshift sick bay on deck. It quickly became evident that we might not get this fire under control, and this ship might be lost. I took up a place on a low bench, and sat with sailor after sailor, each one discussing his or her fears. Many asked direct questions, such as, “What happens if I die?” “What if I don’t have a chance to make things right with my family?” and “Is there life after death?” It was coming down to questions of hope.

On the need for hope: When folks have trouble finding hope, sometimes the chaplain can hold out that hope for them. That night, many people were unsure where their hope would come from. Some had never faced their own mortality before. This was a very profound experience. They realized that the only thing that stood between them and losing the ship was their own efforts. It was very, very tough for them. I am immensely proud of the work of the sailors with whom I sailed.

On being called a hero: What I did that night — and the week that followed as we were towed without power to Pearl Harbor — was the work of chaplaincy. I did the Ash Wednesday service days after the fire. I told everyone they could get an exemption [from giving up something] for Lent, as they had certainly experienced deprivation. The imposition of ashes seemed redundant when everyone was already covered in soot.

On being a military chaplain:
Chaplaincy is a very incarnational ministry. We have the privilege of being with our people exactly where they are. We eat the same food. We sleep in the same conditions. We face the same challenges.

On loving his job: This is one of the richest opportunities I’ve ever had in ministry. I am privileged to work alongside some of the greatest women and men this country produces. People join the Armed Forces because they want to make their country and the world a better place. It’s hard not to be inspired by them.  

This interview has been condensed and edited. Listen to parts two and three of
the Padre (Major) Mike Gibbons interview.

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