After scouring a littered seascape with its NATO allies, a Canadian Forces warship formally ended its search for survivors Friday after its maritime helicopter crashed off the coast of Greece.
The search for five lost crew in the Wednesday Cyclone helicopter crash formally ended after three days, the Canadian Forces said.
Six military personnel were aboard the helicopter when it went down in the Mediterranean Sea as it was returning to the Halifax-based frigate, HMCS Fredericton.
“This decision was not taken lightly,” Rear Admiral Craig Baines, the commander of the navy’s maritime command, told reporters on a windswept pier in Halifax.
The Fredericton, as well as Turkish, Italian, Greek ships, helicopters and planes, thoroughly searched the area for survivors and came up short, he said.
“While searches on the sea are never easy, these units have completely saturated the area for the duration of the search over a known crash location,” said Baines. ”So we are certain that if there were survivors, we would have found them within the past 48 hours.”
Baines confirmed the search for five Canadians service members had formally turned into ”search and recovery efforts” instead of a rescue effort. The body of Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough was previously recovered from the wreckage.
The Forces said it also recovered the remains believed to be those of people aboard the helicopter but they can’t yet be identified. Baines said Italian and Turkish ships are remaining at the scene of the accident to assist with recovery operations for at least the next 48 hours.
The helicopter was part of the Fredericton’s NATO mission when it went down while concluding a training exercise.
The Fredericton was bound for an Italian port and was expected to arrive Saturday. The crew planned to hold a vigil for their lost comrades.
“Upon arrival in Italy the ship will transfer the remains to our team on the ground who will facilitate their return to Canada via Canadian military airlift,” Baines said. “The remains of our fallen will be brought home next week.”
Baines said Fredericton’s crew would remain in Italy for several days before returning to resume its role in the NATO mission.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said all Canadians were mourning the loss of six military members.
“Every day these brave Canadians in uniform put themselves in harm’s way to keep our country and our citizens safe, and together we will honour their service to Canada and our closest allies,” Trudeau said in a statement.
“I also thank our NATO allies who worked side by side with members of our Armed Forces to search for the fallen.”
Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, said it was a “particularly difficult” situation for the families of those who died.
“What makes this all the more difficult to bear is our inability — thus far — to recover all of our fallen comrades,” Vance said Friday in his weekly letter to troops.
Vance said an investigation would hopefully find the cause of the crash.
“In the meantime, we grieve.”
The Canadian military also sent a flight investigation team to the region to determine the cause of the crash.
The Cyclone’s flight-data and voice recorders have been recovered after they broke away from the helicopter when it crashed and will soon be returned to Canada for analysis.
The missing Canadian servicemen have been identified as Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald of New Glasgow, N.S.; Capt. Kevin Hagen of Nanaimo, B.C.; Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin from Trois-Rivieres, Que.; Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke from Truro, N.S.; and Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins from Guelph, Ont.
“These proud military members died heroes, and we will always remember them,” said Col. James Hawthorne, the commander of 12 Wing Shearwater, the Cyclone’s base.
“To the families of these members, remember that we are here to support you — you are part of the military family and now we are in service to you.”
Hawthorne descried MacDonald as a “proud father in a house full of boys” and one of three military siblings.
MacDonald was a “natural in all respects,” said Kevin A. MacDonald, a Halifax lawyer who knew the missing pilot when he was a teenager in the Air Cadets. The two MacDonalds are not related.
Kevin MacDonald was an instructor and operations officer at the school, and says he met Brenden when he moved on to take his pilot’s license in 2002.
“You don’t get to where he did without being a quick study in all respects, not only in terms of technical aptitude but also in terms of academics. You can tell usually within the first flight or two whether or not they are going to stick with it and whether or not they are going to go on to greater things, and he was destined for what he was doing.”
Kyle Hagen described his brother, Kevin as the ”perfect brother” to he and his sister.
“He’s been a shining example of truth, duty and valour for us. We’ve been proud of him our whole lives, he’s been my closest friend, and I can’t describe how hard his loss has been for us,” he said in a Facebook message.
“The military community and representatives have been compassionate and professional, and I’m sorry to Kevin’s brothers- and sisters-in-arms for this awful loss.”
Miron-Morin dreamed of serving in the Forces since he was a teenaged cadet, and became an air combat systems operator in the Royal Canadian Air Force, said Hawthorne.
Cousins was “an outstanding aviator who kept the officers of his crew in line and focused on the mission, said Hawthorne.
Hawthorne said Pyke and Cowbrough were “brothers- and sisters-in-arms” as well as friends.
Mike Blanchfield and Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press