The Canadian military now believes none of the six people lost in a helicopter accident in the Mediterranean have survived.
At a news conference held at the Navy dockyards in Halifax on Friday afternoon, Rear Adm. Craig Baines, Commander of Maritime Command Component, and Col. James Hawthorne, Commander of 12 Wing Shearwater, announced efforts have officially changed from a search and rescue operation to search and recovery.
The Royal Canadian Air Force CH-148 Cyclone helicopter, deployed with HMCS Fredericton as part of NATO's Operation Reassurance, went missing during training exercises off the coast of Greece on Wednesday evening.
“This decision was not taken lightly,” Baines said. “As I mentioned yesterday, the search was executed by multiple ships, including the Fredericton and Italian and Turkish allies. This was supported by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft from Italy, Turkey, Greece and the United States, both during the day and at night.”
Baines said the units have “completely saturated” the area of the known crash location.
“So we are certain that if there were survivors, we would have found them within the past 48 hours,” he said.
The body of Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, a marine systems engineering officer originally from Toronto, was recovered earlier. The other five people who were aboard the chopper are now “officially considered missing and presumed deceased,” Baines said.
They are Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald, pilot, from New Glasgow, Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke, naval warfare officer, from Truro, Capt. Kevin Hagen, pilot, from Nanaimo, B.C., Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin, air combat systems officer, from Trois-Rivières, Que., and Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, airborne electronic sensor operator, from Guelph, Ont.
Baines said searchers have recovered more human remains but are not yet able to identify them, although every effort will be made to do so. He said that most likely will not occur until they are returned to Canada.
“Col. Hawthorne and I cannot begin to express the depth of our sadness that something like this has occurred to our shipmates. To the families, friends and loved ones of all six members who were on board the helicopter, we wish to express our deepest sympathies.”
The cockpit voice recorder and data recorder were found early in the search, and Baines announced on Friday that crews have also recovered a side door and pieces of the fuselage.
Fredericton was proceeding to Italy while the search and recovery operation continued with the support of Italian and Turkish ships, which will stay on the scene for at least the next 48 hours.
“Before (Fredericton) departs the scene of the crash, the ship's company will hold a vigil to pay tribute to our fallen shipmates,” Baines said. “Upon arrival in Italy, the ship will transfer the remains to our team on the ground, who will facilitate their return to Canada via the Canadian military airlift.
“The remains of our fallen will be brought home next week. More details will be provided as soon as we've been able to make appropriate arrangements with the Italian authorities.”
Fredericton will remain dockside for several days in Italy while that happens before resuming its role with Operation Reassurance.
Hawthorne offered brief descriptions of the four members from 12 Wing who lost their lives.
“Capt. Brenden MacDonald was a proud father in a house full of boys and one of three siblings in the Canadian Armed Forces,” Hawthorne said. “Capt. Kevin Hagen's family described him as a truly loyal, compassionate and accepting, supportive brother to a brother and sister. Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin aspired to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces since he was a cadet as a teenager, achieving that goal when he became an air combat systems operator in the Royal Canadian Air Force. And Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins was an outstanding aviator who kept the officers of his crew in line and focused on the mission.”
He also lauded Cowbrough and Pyke as brothers and sisters in arms who were also friends.
“These proud military members died heroes and we will always remember them.”
An operational pause remains in effect for the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter fleet while the Royal Canadian Airforce's directorate of flight safety investigates the accident, Hawthorne said.
Baines said he did not yet know if there any witnesses to the accident, which happened within about 3.2 kilometres of HMCS Fredericton.
He said the military investigation team is en route to Italy where they will link up with Fredericton Saturday morning and start the process of determining what happened.
“Until the investigation team arrives and has an opportunity to both take possession of the cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder, get those brought back to Canada for analysis and they do all the interviews with the folks on the ship, they will not have any idea at this point as to what's occurred.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan issued a statement saying the loss of all six aboard the helicopter is devastating for the entire community at the Department of National Defence, Canadian Armed Forces, and the country.
“This is not the outcome that the Department of National Defence, CAF, and I had hoped for,” the statement said.
“We grieve with their families, friends and loved ones during this time of their profound loss. Communities, from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador, will be mourning their sons and daughter, their brothers and sister, their husbands and parents. We will be there for families, the friends and loved ones during this difficult time and will provide all the support needed to the families impacted by this tragedy.”