29 Nov 2019

A sense of 'relief' from Erebus families after Jacinda Ardern's heartfelt apology

5:26 am on 29 November 2019

By Michael Wright of Stuff

Opinion - The most telling part of the 40th anniversary commemorations for the Erebus disaster was an aside from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after she had apologised on behalf of the government.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the 40th anniversary commemorations of the Erebus disaster.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the 40th anniversary commemorations of the Erebus disaster. Photo: Supplied / MCH

"I sensed relief," she said.

Ms Ardern had just finished saying sorry for the actions of Air New Zealand in causing the Erebus disaster in November, 1979. The airline's board chair Dame Therese Walsh had echoed her words.

The relief Ms Ardern picked up on was from the family members of some of the crash victims she spoke to immediately afterwards. Thursday was a long time coming. For 40 years the Erebus story has been about controversy and blame. Now, finally, it was about something else.

The crash is still New Zealand's deadliest disaster: 257 people killed when an Air New Zealand DC10 crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica while on a sightseeing flight. Whose fault was it? An initial air accident investigation blamed the pilots, who had flown the aircraft into a mountain at 1500 feet.

Then a royal commission of inquiry took aim at the airline. Not only for the mistakes it made - it badly misled the crew - but for conspiring to deceive the commission and shift the blame to the pilots. Commissioner Justice Peter Mahon called it an 'orchestrated litany of lies'.

That phrase has dominated the legacy of Erebus ever since. It incensed the airline, triggered legal challenges and drowned out everything else. Including the voices of the families of the 257 victims.

Now, the government and the airline have re-focused the Erebus story on them. Frankly, it should have been there all along.

"After 40 years, the time has come to apologise for the actions of an airline then in full state ownership; which ultimately caused the loss of the aircraft and the loss of those you loved," Ms Ardern said."

The last part of that sentence is massive. Four decades on, both the government and Air New Zealand accepted the findings of the Mahon report.

"The pilots were not responsible for this tragedy, and I stand here today to state that again," Ms Ardern said.

Erebus has been so controversial for so long because no-one sought to make amends. It was an argument that just continued to be an argument.

Air New Zealand made an effort in 2009 when it apologised for the cold-hearted way it treated victims' families after the crash, but there was nothing like what we heard on Thursday.

The unequivocal nature won't please everyone. Many people, particularly aviation experts, believe that the pilots of flight TE901 - Captain Jim Collins and First Officer Greg Cassin - were at least partly at fault for the crash. But after so much heartache, such differences of opinion are, in a way, beside the point. As Ms Ardern told the victims' families on Thursday, they had been the problem all along.

"In an environment of tumultuous claim and counter claim, of public confusion and ongoing debate, it is difficult I am sure to find a clear place to set down your grief.

"You deserve to find that place. No-one can assume to know what that requires though, or even if it's possible … All I know is that after 40 years, setting down grief will only be made harder, if we don't acknowledge past wrongs."

It took 40 years, but now they have. No wonder there was a sense of relief.

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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