Erebus disaster etched onto Kiwi psyche


Three decades ago this week, New Zealand was a mass of tears.

The country suffered its worst air tragedy ever when, on November 28, 1979, an Air New Zealand plane on a sightseeing flight over Antarctica slammed into Mount Erebus, killing all 257 on board.

The DC10 ploughed into the snow-covered slopes in whiteout conditions that made even the 3,600m mountain invisible.

Toll-wise, it was several notches above Australia’s worst air crash, a US plane that went down at Bakers Creek, northern Queensland in June 1943, killing 40 soldiers.

And given New Zealand’s 1970s population of just three million, it’s not surprising almost everyone knew someone who was on the Erebus flight, or at least knew someone who knew someone on the doomed jet.

Two hundred Kiwis, 24 Japanese, 22 Americans, six Britons, two Canadians, one Australian, one French and one Swiss were dead.

The national grieving was overwhelming but the extreme sadness was soon replaced with bitter anger as the country’s national carrier fumbled in its dealings with victims and the public.

No counselling was offered and Air New Zealand was quick to blame its pilot Jim Collins and his crew even though it was soon revealed they weren’t at fault.

Instead, it was shown that an updated flight plan had not been passed on to the pilot, leaving the plane on a collision course with Erebus.

The airline further failed the country with pitifully low secret compensation payouts to families and endless denials that, as one report accused, it had a “predetermined plan of deception”.

But after 30 years of hurt, the country has finally started to mend its Erebus wounds thanks to an apology from the airline many believed was very belated.

At an October ceremony in Auckland, company boss Rob Fyfe admitted the carrier had made mistakes.

“I can’t turn the clock back. I can’t undo what has been done, but as I look forward I’d like to take the next step on our journey by saying sorry.

“Sorry to all of those who … did not receive the support and compassion they should have from Air New Zealand.”

It was a huge step forward for the nation, which has not allowed a single tourist flight to Antarctica from New Zealand since the disaster.

But recovery is still in baby steps.

A Christchurch businessman’s bold move to charter a Qantas flight and sell tickets to those wanting to visit Erebus around the anniversary has been met with harsh criticism.

“It seems strange to say but I think it’s still too soon,” said one women who lost her mother in the crash.