The 1979 plane crash on Mt Erebus in which 257 people died remains New Zealand’s single largest loss of life. In the intervening years there have been multiple reports and inquiries into the causes of the tragedy, all marked by controversy and imbued with overwhelming sadness.
Four decades on, for the people whose loved ones died and for those who were responsible for bringing the bodies home, there is acknowledgment of the huge impact it had on their lives.
A memorial is planned for Auckland, and the Police Museum in Porirua has compiled a new exhibition – Operation Overdue: The New Zealand Police Story – that will focus on the role of police in the recovery phase.
A Police disaster victim identification team that had been set up eight months prior to the crash was holding a training meeting at Police National Headquarters on the day of the crash. Within hours of the course finishing, news came through that the radio contact had been lost with an Air New Zealand DC10 whilst over Antarctica. Soon after that, Operation Overdue was launched, and DVI team members realised they were about to face a real-life situation in difficult conditions in Antarctica.
Research for the exhibition included establishing a list of all those who had worked on Operation Overdue – not just police – in the body recovery and mortuary phases (270 people) and sorting through historical documents.
Museum director Rowan Carroll says there was a huge amount to sift through, including personal items, reports and photos, many of which are “beautiful, stirring and frightening”.
Much of the detail that forms the basis of the display comes from former police officers Stu Leighton and Greg Gilpin, who were part of the body recovery team.
Greg kept a very detailed diary, including exact dates and times, which have been incorporated into a timeline of the recovery operation.
A 3D infographic shows the grid plan at the crash site marked with green flags, each denoting where a body part had been located.
All items recovered at the site were photographed and catalogued, from the prosaic – cutlery and playing cards – to the poignant, such as clothing, jewellery and watches, which in some cases were used to helped identify victims.
The diary of pilot Captain Jim Collins, from which several spiral-bound pages disappeared, and which was the subject of much speculation, will be on display, along with pieces of fuselage and shrapnel.
Quotes from members of the Collins family and from Sarah Myles, whose grandfather, Hugh Christmas, was one of those killed, are also incorporated into the exhibition. Sarah Myles has written a book about Erebus being published this month.
On November 28, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage is holding an event in Auckland at the site of a planned Erebus memorial that is scheduled for completion in May 2020.
Back in Porirua, the Erebus exhibition is open from November 8. Rowan Carroll says anyone who was involved in Operation Overdue is welcome to attend “to recognise what they have done and what a huge impact it had on their lives”.
She says one of the most important aspects of the exhibition is highlighting the strong connections that have built up over the past 40 years between police and the families of the victims. “They have formed strong bonds with the families, who have been able to put a face to the person who helped bring their loved ones home.”