F-16 pilots give emotional apologies for friendly fire deaths, plead for forgiveness.
His hands trembling and his gaze cast down, Maj. Harry Schmidt stood alone yesterday and apologized to the families of the men he killed in the now notorious friendly fire incident.
Speaking in a voice shaking with emotion, the expert fighter pilot said he truly believed he was under attack last April as his F-16 screamed through the skies over Afghanistan.
He has insisted he didn't know that 6,400 metres below a small platoon of Canadian soldiers were practising drills using live fire that flashed brightly on a dark, moonless night.
The lack of information was lethal.
"I think about the men who were killed and the men who were injured," Schmidt, 37, said in front of his lawyers and the investigating officer at the conclusion of a nine-day hearing about his conduct.
"As a family man myself with a wife and two young boys, I can only imagine how difficult it is for them and their families.
"I am deeply sorry for what happened ... I will always regret what happened that night."
Schmidt and his lead pilot Maj. William Umbach ended the lengthy hearing yesterday with their pleas for forgiveness, making their first public statements since the accident.
Umbach began by reading the names of the young men who were killed or injured last April 18.
In a strained, but steady voice, Umbach said he was tormented by thoughts of the men who died when Schmidt dropped a 225-kilogram bomb on the soldiers whom they mistook for hostile forces.
"Not a day has passed that I have not thought of that night, in the sky, in the darkness, and all that has happened since," the pilot said.
"I hope and pray for your forgiveness ... I want you to know that I am truly sorry," Umbach said in a statement that lasted more than three minutes.
Less than a kilometre away, relatives of the dead soldiers reacted with a mix of sadness and relief, but some questioned the intentions of one of the pilots.
"Maj. Umbach I felt was very sincere," Claire Leger, whose 29-year-old son Sgt. Marc Leger was killed, said through tears. "Maj. Schmidt, I have to say I felt he was offering a defence of himself first. I know his job's on the line, but those are our sons' lives on the line, sorry."
Others said they, too, had difficulty accepting Schmidt's comments.
"Today, the saddest day for me," Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer's mother, Agatha Dyer, said in a thick Caribbean accent as strains of the Star Spangled Banner played in the distance.
"Maj. Umbach, he break my heart. I really feel he meant what he said, he really touch me. I don't have no remorse about Maj. Schmidt, he was trying to defend himself before he tell us he was sorry."
Marley Leger, holding a tissue as her soft, dark curls blew in a cold wind, broke down in tears when asked how she felt about the comments.
"I would just like to say thank you," said the young widow who was planning a vacation when she found out her husband Marc had been killed.
"I appreciate your apologies and they are accepted. They are very much appreciated and very much needed."