Nearly three months after a helicopter crash claimed the lives of six crew members, HMCS Fredericton returned to its home port of Halifax on Tuesday.
After a six-month deployment, the Royal Canadian Navy frigate sailed into port accompanied by Nova Scotia’s fabled schooner Bluenose II and the navy’s training sailing vessel HMCS Oriole.
A navy band played military music and a line of Air Force personnel stood dockside holding cardboard letters spelling out: “Welcome Home!”
But in remarks to the crew and gathered dignitaries, the vessel’s commanding officer, Commander Blair Brown, referred to the tragedy that coloured the mission.
“When we departed in January, none of us knew the challenges that we would be facing overseas on Operation Reassurance,” Cdr. Brown said.
The mission was rocked when the frigate’s CH-148 Cyclone helicopter – known as Stalker 22 – crashed into the Ionian Sea off the coast of Greece on April 29 while returning from a NATO training mission. That crash caused the worst single-day loss of life for the Canadian Armed Forces since six soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan on July 4, 2007.
“The loss of our shipmates in the crash of Stalker had a profound impact on all of us,” Cdr. Brown said, as family members of two crash victims, Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough and Sub-Lieutenant Matthew Pyke, looked on clutching bouquets of flowers.
Captain Brenden Ian MacDonald, Captain Kevin Hagen, Captain Maxime Miron-Morin and Master Corporal Matthew Cousins were also killed in the April crash.
“The loss of this outstanding group of sailors and aviators was felt by every single one of us on board every day and has left a space in our hearts that will remain there for all of our days,” Cdr. Brown said.
The ship was docked in Italy for two weeks after the fatal incident and resumed its mission in the Mediterranean Sea in mid-May.
Cdr. Brown said the decision to continue the mission may have been hard for some to understand, but it was an important part of Canada’s commitment to its allies.
“Our role in Operation Reassurance was vital, and our ship’s company displayed tremendous resilience, a positive attitude and commitment to that mission,” he said.
He then thanked the Canadian public for its support after the tragedy, saying it was vital in helping the crew complete its task.
“We received so many care packages, cards from across our nation that they covered the bulkheads – the walls – in the ship,” Cdr. Brown said.
A Royal Canadian Air Force flight safety investigation into the circumstances of the crash is continuing. The investigation is focused on aircraft systems and human factors as possible causes of the crash.
Cdr. Brown addressed his crew before they were allowed to leave the ship.
“Despite immense challenges, both physical and mental, your resilience and commitment was steadfast, and you got it done,” he said. “Enjoy your reunion with your families.”
Earlier, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, had boarded the frigate before it reached land and sailed into port with the crew. The ship was officially welcomed by Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Arthur LeBlanc.
The Halifax-class frigate arrived amid COVID-19 measures, which drastically changed normal return protocols. Everyone on the dock was wearing a mask, and the sailors were transported by bus to reunite with family at a separate part of the base.
Cdr. Brown said that prior to docking, the ship’s company had been in isolation for 14 days and showed no signs of COVID-19 infection.
Editor’s note: (July 28, 2020): This story has been updated to correct the date of the roadside bombing in Afghanistan to July 4, 2007.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.