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HMCS Fredericton returns after six-month mission marked by tragic helicopter crash

Click to play video: 'HMCS Fredericton returns after tragic 6-month mission' HMCS Fredericton returns after tragic 6-month mission
WATCH: After six months at sea, members of the Canadian Armed Forces have returned from a NATO-led mission in the Mediterranean that turned tragic when six crew members died in a helicopter crash. As Ross Lord reports, the homecoming of HMCS Fredericton was bittersweet. – Jul 28, 2020

Nearly three months after a helicopter crash claimed the lives of six crew members, HMCS Fredericton returned to its home port of Halifax Tuesday.

Click to play video: 'HMCS Fredericton returns after six-month mission marred by tragic helicopter crash' HMCS Fredericton returns after six-month mission marred by tragic helicopter crash
HMCS Fredericton returns after six-month mission marred by tragic helicopter crash – Jul 28, 2020

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.

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A navy band played military music and a line of Air Force personnel stood dockside holding cardboard letters spelling out: “Welcome Home!”

Click to play video: 'Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough’s remains returned to Nova Scotia' Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough’s remains returned to Nova Scotia
Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough’s remains returned to Nova Scotia – May 13, 2020

But in remarks to the crew and gathered dignitaries, the vessel’s commanding officer, Cmdr. 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,” Brown said.

Click to play video: 'Families reunite with loved ones as HMCS Fredericton returns' Families reunite with loved ones as HMCS Fredericton returns
Families reunite with loved ones as HMCS Fredericton returns – Jul 28, 2020

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 Easter Sunday 2007.

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“The loss of our shipmates in the crash of Stalker had a profound impact on all of us,” Brown said, as family members of two crash victims, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough and Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke, looked on clutching bouquets of flowers.

Read more: Families of HMCS Fredericton crew members prepare to welcome them home

Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald, Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin and Master Cpl. 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,” Brown said.

The ship was docked in Italy for two weeks following the fatal incident and resumed its mission in the Mediterranean Sea in mid-May.

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 following the tragedy, saying it was vital in helping the crew complete its task.

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“We received so many care packages, cards from across our nation that they covered the bulkheads – the walls – in the ship,” Brown said.

A Royal Canadian Air Force flight safety investigation into the circumstances of the crash is ongoing. The investigation is focused on aircraft systems and human factors as possible causes of the crash.

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 Gen. 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 Lt.-Gov. 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.

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.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2020.

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