For years, Cpl. Simon Pittarelli has been ending every phone conversation with his sister, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, with “I love you.”
That means more to him now than ever, as Cowbrough was one of six Canadian military members killed in last week’s helicopter crash off the coast of Greece who are being honoured at a repatriation ceremony in Ontario on Wednesday.
In the end, that “I love you” marked Pittarelli’s last words to his sister.
“It kind of proves even more that every person you talk to that’s meaningful to you, you should always end the phone call with an ‘I love you,'” he told CBC News.
The ceremony is happening at CFB Trenton, about 175 kilometres northeast of Toronto, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in attendance. A long line of family members, some holding flowers and walking with children, stood in groups and wore masks during the ceremony. Others dabbed at their eyes with tissues.
Cowbrough’s casket, which was draped in the Canadian flag, was slowly carried out of a CC-177 Globemaster by fellow military members while the mournful sound of bagpipes played.
The Department of National Defence said Canadian Armed Forces members, with the exception of pallbearers, are practising physical distancing at the ceremony to protect the health of those in attendance. Service members could be seen at the base wearing masks.
“Despite the challenges presented by the current COVID-19 environment and the need to maintain physical distancing, 8 Wing/CFB Trenton is committed to a dignified and respectful repatriation for our fallen aviators and sailors,” the department said in an email Tuesday.
On April 29, a CH-148 Cyclone crashed in the Ionian Sea while taking part in NATO exercises. Defence officials have said it was returning to HMCS Fredericton at the end of a NATO training mission.
The remains of Cowbrough, who was a naval officer, were subsequently recovered. The other five service members on board are missing and presumed dead. Cowbrough was a marine systems engineering officer on the HMCS Fredericton and had lived in Dartmouth, N.S., for much of her life.
Pittarelli said he’s going to miss his “big sister,” who people often said was a “beautiful, vibrant” woman with a smile you couldn’t help but notice.
Growing up, if their mom was out of the house, Cowbrough was in charge.
“She definitely was a fitting person to become an officer,” he said. “She took charge, she gave orders … she was definitely an older sister for sure.”
The other five service members are Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald, a pilot originally from New Glasgow, N.S.; Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke, a naval warfare officer originally from Truro, N.S.; Capt. Kevin Hagen, a pilot originally from Nanaimo, B.C.; Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin, an air combat systems officer originally from Trois-Rivières, Que.; and Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, an airborne electronic sensor operator originally from Guelph, Ont.
The remains of one other person have been recovered but not yet identified.
Retired major Tim Dunne, a 32-year veteran of Canada’s Armed Forces, told CBC News it’s an incredibly difficult time for those in the military.
“These people become another family for you,” he said. “When you see a situation like this, it brings home the fact that when people serve together, their relationship becomes very, very hard-formed.”
Pallbearers and those unable to distance physically will wear gloves. The department said it is providing family members with masks and encourage them to maintain distance between each other during the ceremony.
As for Canadians who wish to pay their respects, the department is urging them to watch the ceremony on television or online instead of gathering at CFB Trenton.
The department said the five members who are missing and presumed dead will be represented by different military headgear, depending on whether they were members of the Royal Canadian Navy or Royal Canadian Air Force.
The headgear will rest on pillows to also be carried off the plane by fellow military members.
Motorcade to Toronto to follow ceremony
Following the ceremony, a motorcade will travel along a section of Highway 401, known as the Highway of Heroes, to Toronto, for a coroner’s examination.
A portion of Highway 401 is called the Highway of Heroes to mark the road that soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan travelled between CFB Trenton and Toronto in their final journey home.
When the bodies of soldiers who died in Afghanistan were repatriated, people often line the overpasses of Highway 401 to pay their respects.
“For those who may feel it necessary to have a physical presence at roadside or overpasses along the Highway of Heroes, we ask that you join us in respecting COVID-19 restrictions and practice physical distancing while paying respects,” the department says.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that he is urging people to watch the ceremony and motorcade on TV or online instead of from Highway 401 overpasses to adhere to physical distancing guidelines.
Pittarelli said it “sucks” that people aren’t able to show their support in the way they normally would, but it’s “what we have to do.”
“I know for a fact that every Canadian in this country cares and every soldier in this country cares,” he said.
It’s still not clear what caused the CH-148 Cyclone to crash, but the helicopter’s flight data recorders were found in the debris and are to be analyzed at the National Research Council in Ottawa.