Nova Scotians hit with second tragedy in two weeks after military chopper crash

HALIFAX — A province still reeling from a horrific mass shooting less than two weeks ago is now dealing with news that a military helicopter operating from a Halifax-based frigate crashed off Greece with six crew aboard.

The military said Thursday one crew member has died and five others were missing after a Cyclone helicopter went down in the Ionian Sea. The helicopter was returning to HMCS Fredericton from a NATO training mission when the crash occurred Wednesday.

“This is another very hard day for Halifax, for Nova Scotia and for Armed Forces families,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a news conference in Ottawa.

People pay their respects at 12 Wing Shearwater in Dartmouth, N.S., home of 423 Maritime Helicopter Squadron, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. A CH-148 Cyclone helicopter flying from the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Fredericton crashed in the Ionian Sea between Italy and Greece while taking part in an exercise as part of a NATO operation in the Mediterranean.Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The helicopter was based at 12 Wing Shearwater, a sprawling Royal Canadian Air Force base on the east side of Halifax harbour.

The base, which is next to the communities of Eastern Passage and Cow Bay, celebrated its 100th anniversary in August 2018. It is the oldest military base in Canada, next to Canadian Forces Base Borden in Ontario.

Kevin Deveaux, a former politician who represented Eastern Passage in the provincial legislature between 1999 and 2007, called it “a very difficult day.”

“Added on top of everything else that’s happened this month, it just makes it even more difficult …. But I think it’s fair to say that as a community we’re resilient …. We’ll come through this,” said Deveaux.

Since Canada has only two maritime helicopter bases — the other is at Patricia Bay, north of Victoria — the aircrew that work with helicopters tend to stay put for long periods of time, which means they are more likely to become part of the local community.

Deveaux, who still lives in Eastern Passage, said his father was a radar technician at the base.

“Everyone knows the risk involved when you sign up for the military, and this is a community that very much supports the base and those who serve,” he said.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil extended his sympathies in a statement.

“Today, Nova Scotians are mourning another loss after a Canadian helicopter involved in Operation Reassurance with Halifax’s HMCS Fredericton crashed in international waters off the coast of Greece,” said McNeil. “On behalf of the entire province, I extend my sincere and heartfelt condolences.”

The military confirmed Thursday the body of one sailor, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough a maritime systems engineering officer originally from Toronto, had been recovered.

The missing are Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald a pilot originally from New Glasgow, N.S., Captain Kevin Hagen, a pilot originally from Nanaimo, B.C., Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin, an air combat systems officer, originally from Trois-Rivieres, Que., Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke, a naval weapons officer originally from Truro, N.S., and Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, an airborne electronic sensor operator, originally from Guelph, Ont.

Amid a massive investigation into the April 18-19 shootings that killed 22 people in the province, including Const. Heidi Stevenson, Nova Scotia RCMP also extended their condolences in a message on Twitter.

“Today, our hearts hurt for those who were on board the CH-148 Cyclone and their family, friends, comrades and community,” the message said.

Bill Karsten, the regional councillor for the Shearwater area, said the challenges Nova Scotians are now facing will provide an opportunity for neighbours to grow stronger.

“We’re a tough lot here in Nova Scotia,” he said. “We face these tragedies together, and we’ll get through it together.” He said about 14,000 people live in the communities around the base.

Cowbrough, 23, was a member of the crew of HMCS Fredericton and also an accomplished bagpiper and a member of the Union Fire Club Pipes and Drums.

In a Facebook post, the band said it was “profoundly saddened to hear that a beloved member of our band has lost her life while serving her country.”

“Abbie thank you for joining our little band and making it better,” the post said.

In another Facebook post the Regal Heights Baptist Church in Dartmouth, N.S. said it was heartbroken.

“Our church family has lost a wonderful woman,” the post said. “Our prayers are with her family, and all those who have lost a loved one in this tragic accident.”

In Gatineau, Que., Josianne Garrioch, a best friend of Cowbrough’s who first met her at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., said her friend’s Christian faith was a big part of her life.

“Her faith was really important to her, and it was something that connected her to a lot of people at RMC as well,” she said

Joe Cameron, another friend from the military college and also a piper, said Cowbrough was the type of person friends could depend upon.

“She was this ray of sunshine during some pretty dark days in my life and in the lives of her friends,” Cameron said. “It’s so sad to see her not here anymore.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2020.

— With files by Michael MacDonald in Halifax