Erebus: NZ's gigantic, unresolved mess

6:45 am on 28 November 2019

By Michael Wright of Stuff

Opinion - Forty years ago today, New Zealand suffered its worst-ever disaster when an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 people on board.

It should be as simple and as tragic as that. The friends and families of those who died come together to grieve their shared loss, while the rest of us note a sad day in our history, and move on.

Wreckage at the site of the Erebus disaster.

Wreckage at the site of the Erebus disaster. Photo: Fairfax Media NZ

But it isn't that. Not even close. In the four decades since it happened, the Erebus disaster somehow got even worse. Tragedy was overtaken by controversy, as bitter arguments emerged about blame and conspiracy, leaving New Zealand's deadliest disaster as a gigantic, unresolved mess.

At the heart of it was the question of who was responsible for the crash. Was it the pilots? Captain Jim Collins and First Officer Greg Cassin had flown a DC10 directly into a mountain at 1500 feet. Or was it Air New Zealand?

The airline had woefully under-equipped its crews for flying in a polar environment and somehow managed to change the route of the fatal flight twice without realising it. On top of that, an inquiry found that Air New Zealand had tried to cover up its involvement in the disaster. Justice Peter Mahon called it an "orchestrated litany of lies".

That line is the one thing that has stuck for many of us about Erebus. It's fitting, really. One, because the enduring soundbite of this national tragedy-turned-controversy was about the finger-pointing that came afterwards rather than the horrific events that precipitated it. And two, because that line and the sentiment behind it was overturned by a court. Like so much else to do with Erebus, it too became complicated and ugly.

The wreath placed at the Erebus memorial cross for the 20th anniversary commemoration.

The wreath placed at the Erebus memorial cross for the 20th anniversary commemoration. Photo: Courtesy of Archives New Zealand

It is time to start cleaning up this mess. The families of the victims, many of whom have felt marginalised and voiceless for decades while the arguments played out, deserve it.

In 2009, then Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe got things started when he apologised to the families for the cold-hearted way the airline treated them after the disaster. But he didn't say anything about what Air New Zealand did before the crash.

Things that, even if they didn't cause the disaster outright, were appalling mistakes and a black mark against the organisation. Nothing has been heard on this subject since.

On the 40th anniversary of the crash, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will host victims' families at Government House. Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy will be there too, along with representatives from Air New Zealand. It is the ideal setting for the airline and its majority owner to start to make amends. Show a genuine sign that they are truly sorry for what happened that day, what happened afterwards, and their role in that.

One person who will be there is Maria Collins, the widow of the pilot, Captain Jim Collins. She has shouldered a greater burden than most over the years. Grief, coupled with guilt. Was her husband to blame? In recent interviews for the Stuff / RNZ podcast White Silence she said that within hours of learning about the crash that night back in 1979, her thoughts turned outward: What will the world think of us?

Maria Collins in her Auckland home.

Maria Collins in her Auckland home. Photo: Lawrence Smith / Stuff

An initial investigation into the crash largely blamed the pilots, before the Mahon report exonerated them.

It almost doesn't matter which, if either, of those things might be true. No-one should have to go through what Maria Collins has. And she and her family are just one of 257.

There is still no national memorial to those 257 Erebus victims. One is planned for a park in Auckland, but that has turned into a dispute as well. It was initially hoped it would be completed in time for the 40th anniversary. That was later downgraded to a sod-turning. That too was missed as locals objected to the site, design and lack of consultation.

Proposed Erebus memorial design

Proposed Erebus memorial design. Photo: Ministry of Culture and Heritage

This has nothing really to do with the arguments that have dragged on for decades, but it is symptomatic of the wider problem: Erebus feels like something from the distant past, too hard to start confronting now.

It still matters. It matters, of course, to the families of those who died, but it should matter a little bit to all of us that Erebus has been a sore allowed to fester in the side of the national psyche for 40 years. More recent disasters like Cave Creek, Pike River and the CTV building were all blighted by questions of blame and recrimination.

There was a lesson in Erebus that was not heeded. If we are to better deal with our tragedies in the future, we need to talk about our worst-ever disaster in a more mature way. Today is the perfect day to start.

You can listen to White Silence, a podcast on the Erebus disaster, on RNZ and the [ RNZ app], on Stuff, or via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or any other app using the RSS feed.

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