August 14, 2018

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They’re not forgotten: returning to Cold Lake 30 years after tragedy

Jeff Gaye

Nicki Niemi Cammack and Susan Tucker came to know each other under the worst circumstances. Each lost a brother in separate CF-18 crashes 15 months apart.

Capt Wally Niemi of 410 Squadron died when his Hornet crashed on Seibert Lake, about 80 kilometres northwest of Cold Lake, on January 11, 1989. Then on April 22, 1990, Capt Hollis Tucker of 441 Squadron crashed in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Susan and Nicki returned to Cold Lake during the recent air show weekend — a pilgrimage, as Nicki describes it. Neither had been here since attending their brothers’ memorial services all those years ago.

“Susan lives three hours away from me in Ontario,” she said. “Ever since Hollis's crash we've been communicating with each other over the years and seeing each other two or three times. 

“And I was talking about this plan of mine about eight months ago, I was saying 2018 has to be the year. I want to get out there to Cold Lake, and Susan wanted to do the same thing. I said ‘well come along, we'll have sort of a pilgrimage out there.’”

Susan says she agreed to go, mostly to support Nicki.

“A couple months go by and [Nicki] says ‘you know what, I think I really want to stop talking about it and make it happen.’ I said well then fine let's do it,” Susan said. She booked her flights and kept bugging Nicki to book hers.

“I know it's the chaplain, and I don't want to answer it”

In April 1990, Hollis Tucker’s parents were visiting him while he trained in Comox. They were informed that Hollis’s plane had disappeared on a training flight, and that a search was underway.

“My mom called me in Toronto and she said that something has happened and there's a chaplain on his way to talk to me,” Susan recalls. “I still remember as clear as day, I'm on the phone to her and there's a knock at the door. And I can remember thinking if I don't answer the door then this all just goes away. 

“I know it's the chaplain, and I don't want to answer it,” she said. 

“Well obviously I did. And there were two men, and they came in and they stayed for I can't remember how long. But they explained the situation and we just kind of talked through it.” 

An oil slick spotted on the ocean surface confirmed that Capt Tucker’s Hornet had crashed, but the search for him continued. His family clung to whatever hope they could.

“Of course we're waiting thinking, you know, ‘he made it out and somehow made it to shore, and he's stuck in the woods somewhere, and you know he'll come out of this.’ And we just kind of sat waiting and hoping. But of course it didn't happen,” Susan said.

“And next thing I know they're flying us out there for the memorial.”

“The family seemed to be the first priority for all of them”

Nicki Niemi remembers she had been visiting family in Saskatchewan in the fall of 1988, and made a side trip to Cold Lake to visit Wally and his family for a weekend. On Sunday, Wally invited her to go for a tour of 410 Squadron the next day, but Nicki was already late returning to Ontario for work and took a raincheck. 

Wally put her on the bus to Edmonton Monday morning. 

“I never did get that tour from Wally of course,” Nicki said. “It was three months later that he was killed.”

The squadron was dealing with the shock of Capt Niemi’s loss, and also needed to take care of his spouse Mary and their children. Nicki finds it extraordinary that Squadron CO LCol Denny Roberts, and the entire unit, were able to support the extended Niemi family so well. She told LCol Roberts she regretted not touring the hangar with Wally that past fall.

“When I told Denny that, that was when he said he would give me the tour that Wally never gave. And you know it was amazing how people just gave of their time. They were all grieving too. They were sad and upset. And yet the family seemed to be the first priority for all of them. So those feelings have stayed with me all these years.”

“Well yeah, that's Wally”

Nicki was accompanied on the recent trip by her sons Victor and Marlon LaBar, and Marlon’s daughter Olivia. Her nephew, Nick Niemi, also made the trip with his fiancée Hayly Thackeray. Nick was almost two years old when his father died.

The Niemis hoped they would be able to visit Seibert Lake while they were here. The road was difficult, but they made it.

Susan Tucker and her sister Carol accompanied the Niemis out to Seibert Lake on Saturday, July 21, and waited on shore while the Niemi family headed out in a Zodiac inflatable boat. The Niemis motored to the exact coordinates of the crash site and dropped a memento into the water at the site of Wally’s crash.

“It was a very calm day,” Nicki said. “The lake was barely moving, just a few little gentle waves. It just turned out perfectly and I figured well, he must have ordered it. There was a pelican flying around the shore as we were getting ready, and when we were out at the crash coordinates this pelican was floating on the water nearby, and I said ‘Well yeah, that's Wally watching us making sure we're doing everything right.’”

They dropped a plastic bottle filled with rocks and soil from the family farm and from Wally’s grave. It also had a small picture of Wally inside and a 410 Squadron crest on the outside.

The next day, both families took in the Cold Lake Air Show. Before they left for home on Monday, they were given a tour of 2 Hangar by 410 Squadron CO LCol Seane Doell. 

“They took us up into the Hornet,” Susan said. “I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it, but I did. It probably wasn't a good thing for me to do it. I just had these tears flowing down my face the whole time I was sitting in it. My sister couldn't do it. She looked like nope, not going to do it. But I'm glad I did. 

“And then after that we went upstairs to the pilots’ lounge and found my brother's picture with the class he graduated in.”

Nick had a personal experience in the Hornet. 

“The CF-18 that was in the hangar was one that had been on the static display at the air show,” Nicki said. “Nick has a little database of his dad's flight log so he looked up the number, and it was a plane that his dad had flown on two or three occasions. So he was in the cockpit at the air show and then again in the hangar on the base tour. You could tell that it was an experience for him, it was just one of those profound things. 

“He holds things close to his chest, but you know that he was really feeling the experience.”

“They’re not forgotten”

Another part of the Cold Lake pilgrimage that Nicki wanted to accomplish was a visit to the Fallen Aircrew Memorial outside the main gate.

“We had a few moments there. I did the Act of Remembrance. It was something I wanted to do it not just for Wally and Hollis, but for all of the downed pilots whose names are on that cairn.

“Everything I wanted to do pretty much was accomplished on the trip, so it was a great feeling. And I just felt quite contented and happy. It was nice to be able to share the experience with some of my family and Wally’s son, and Susan and Carol Tucker as well.”

Nicki and Susan were both impressed by the efforts of Cpl Dan Chapeski, who coordinated their visit. They also renewed acquaintances with Capt (retired) Bill Huckstep, a colleague of Wally and Hollis at the time of their respective crashes. Bill is now an instructor pilot on the CF-18 flight simulator. 

“It was nice to have that kind of connection again, somebody that that knew Hollis,” Susan said. 

“And to know that they're not forgotten.”

The period from 1988 to 1992 was filled with tragedy at CFB Cold Lake. In addition to Capt Niemi and Capt Tucker, five other pilots died in CF-18 or CF-5 crashes: Capt Michael Erickson, Capt Richard Corver, Capt Pierre Trottier, Cpt Richard Lloyd and Capt Jeffrey Tait.

The Aircrew Memorial at the front gate of CFB Cold Lake commemorates all aircrew who lost their lives while stationed in Cold Lake.