Mount Erebus Air Disaster
From the July 1980 edition of the APJ
Permission has been given for the APJ to reprint in its entirety the contents of the "New Zealand Police 'Bulletin' Commemorative Issue on the Mt. Erebus Air Disaster". The remote region in which the crash occurred presented major difficulties for the Police concerned. Those men who served in the recovery operation displayed tremendous courage in bringing it to a successful conclusion.
Senior Sergeant J Franklin, Editor of the Bulletin, the New Zealand Police Department's house magazine, saw the stories surrounding the operation as being of intense interest and published a special issue to commemorate the operation. We are thankful for being given the opportunity to reprint this series of short stories for the information of Police generally.
However, readers are advised that the New Zealand Police Bulletin holds copyright on these articles and that they must not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the New Zealand Police Commissioner.
November 28 1979 dawned an ordinary day for most New Zealanders. However, for 257 passengers and crew on Air New Zealand's Flight 901 it was anything but, as they gathered at Auckland airport for a long-awaited scenic flight over Antarctica. They had no way of knowing their excitement and their lives would end violently that afternoon on the icy slopes of Mount (Mt.) Erebus.
That afternoon, key Police Headquarters staff were entertaining people from organisations involved with the service during the year at the traditional Commissioner's Christmas Party.
Many of those people, both from the Police and other services who would be involved in Operation Overdue, were enjoying the pre-Christmas conviviality, oblivious to the horror which already awaited their attention on Mt. Erebus.
News of the disaster seeped slowly, almost reluctantly into New Zealand. At first, Air New Zealand's communications centre were vaguely worried. But as time wore on the hard reality that the aircraft was down had to be faced.
Historic and Difficult
Later that evening, Chief Superintendent Brian Davies, Director: Operations, at Police National Headquarters received a phone call at his home from Rana Waitai, the duty inspector at Wellington.
"We seem to have a small problem", said the inspector.
"What's happened" asked Mr Davies, as he conjured up mental pictures of bikies on the move or of a gang confrontation somewhere.
"We have lost a DC-10 sir", came the quiet and worried reply.
Those words swung "Operation Overdue" into action, an operation which proved to be one of the most historic and difficult tasks ever undertaken by the New Zealand Police. It also proved to be an outstanding operational success, if "success" is a proper term to use under such macabre and tragic circumstances.
The Bulletin retrospectively provides an outline of Police developments and progress over the years. It is fitting therefore that it features an event as historic as Operation Overdue.
As soon as the news of the crash became known to the Police, Commissioner Walton and senior staff quickly assembled at Headquarters to activate the co-ordination centre.
Chief Superintendent Brian Davies, Director: Operations, was given command of the centre. He found his role unique with widely dispersed operational points at Antarctica, Christchurch, Headquarters, and Auckland. The centre functioned around the clock for a considerable period and undertook a wide range of complex tasks.
Mr Davies recalls that requests for advice, decisions, and policy interpretation were never-ending in the early stages and in his words "ranged from the mighty to the miniscule". What was clear was that central co-ordination would be the key to the success or failure of the operation. Interests in the crash were diversified with so many parties involved including Civil Aviation. Air New Zealand, the Antarctic Division of the DSIR, the Ministry of Defence, foreign embassies, relatives, and the news media.
Naturally enough, with so many varying interests, early problems arose regarding roles and the limitations on the release of information. Clearly the recovery of bodies and identification were Police tasks and Mr Davies had to make this clear. As soon as this was understood and responsibilities were fixed, the operation ran smoothly.
One of the more unusual matters which Mr Davies had to decide was a request from the relative of a victim who wanted to make special arrangements for an Antarctic funeral. For a variety of reasons, including difficulties in confirming identify at Mt. Erebus, the request had to be declined.
On the lighter side, staff at the centre found it difficult to stop chuckling as they gave advice to a San Francisco journalist who wanted to know the best hotel to stay at in Antarctica!
In today's electronic age, news of major catastrophes is instant and insistent. Recalled for duty at 2000 hours on the night of the crash, Auckland's press officer, Senior Sergeant Des Hall immediately began to feel the impact of world-wide media calls. By midnight he had spoken to newsmen from Los Angeles, Sydney, New York, Washington, London, Birmingham, Tokyo, and from throughout New Zealand.
At that stage few hard facts were available and most calls had to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis with large amounts of background material to help reporters meet deadlines.
Many had no idea of the enormous distances involved and it was not easy at first to get through to them that the calamity was a continent away from the operations centre.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sykes established a press bureau when it became obvious normal procedures would not suffice. Later, senior members of the Auckland Press Corps were brought in to assist with the by now continuous stream of toll calls from overseas and from other parts of the country. Des Hall points out that without the expert help of the press men, the Police would have had difficulty in coping.
To add to Police problems 32 Japanese newspaper, radio, and television reporters arrived, and at press conferences Police and Air New Zealand staff faced up to 200 anxious inquirers including Japanese relatives and journalists and local reporters.
So intense was the Japanese pressure for information that this part of the news service was taken over by Senior Sergeant Bernie Bowerman, hastily seconded from his community relations portfolio.
Media calls persisted in volume and variety up to 22 December when they eased sufficiently for the district press officer to deal with daily updates on his own.
Traps for the Unwary
Both Des Hall in Auckland and Senior Sergeant Joe Franklin, the press officer at the Co-ordinating Centre at National Headquarters found the experience professionally rewarding. But both found there were traps for the unwary.
Des Hall emphasises the risks in putting out unconfirmed information. An early report from Antarctica indicated that 120 victims would be coming to Auckland on the first flight. When only 114 arrived he was asked very pointedly by a journalist "What have you done with the other six bodies?"
Joe Franklin, at Headquarters, was also bombarded with international and local toll calls. He put out 31 formal press statements, a record for any single operation. In contrast to New Zealand procedures he found that some overseas journalists taped phone conversations without warning or permission.
Chief Superintendent Davies gave televised sitreps for three mornings following the crash. These were broadcast simultaneously by satellite to nine different countries, the first such occasion when a New Zealand policeman's remarks have been beamed to so many places.
INTERPOL office staff at Headquarters swelled from two to ten from the night of the crash.
Senior Sergeant Graeme Sawyer, the man in charge of the office, mobilised his staff from 2000 hours, and an extra eight were called in to help. They established a communications centre in the Headquarters conference room and were soon liaising with INTERPOL offices in Canberra, Washington, Ottawa, Tokyo, London, Singapore, Berne, Helsinki, and Noumea, where the next of kin of crash victims were told of the deaths and particulars needed for identification were obtained. The emergency team manned the office 24-hours a day for the ensuing 5 days, until the workload eased sufficiently for permanent staff to handle.
BODY RECOVERY GROUP
Under the command of Inspector R. S. Mitchell of Headquarters, the Mt. Erebus Body Recovery Group comprised Senior Sergeant M. J. Muddiman of Christchurch, Sergeant G. J. Gilpin of Wellington, Sergeant P. J. Rodgers of the Police College, Sergeant T. J. Horne of Auckland, Sergeant M. A. Penn of Christchurch, Constables B. Thompson and P. Younger, both of Auckland, Constable R. A. Blackler of Wellington, Constable A. L. Windleburn of Christchurch, Constable B. A. Jones of Auckland, and Constable S. B. Leighton of Lower Hutt.
The Federated Mountain Club personnel who accompanied the Police were under the command of John Stanton of Christchurch and his 2 I/C was Colin Monteith with Eric Saegars, Hugh Logan, John Barnett, Ray Goldring,' and Ray Arkon, all of Christchurch, and Harry Keys of Wellington. United States Navy personnel assigned to assist were "Photo Mates" Chuck Hitchcock, Brian Worth, Dennis Kynne, and Tom McCabe, and Brian Yorderstrasse of the United States Para Rescue Team.
Inspector Bob Mitchell, Co-ordinator Search & Rescue (SAR) at Headquarters knew his hour of reckoning was due as soon as the first reports came in of the finding of the DC-10 wreckage. As one of only two New Zealand police officers to have made a detailed study of Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) procedures, he knew command of the body recovery section was likely to be his. And sure enough, the order to go to Antarctica came that night.
Although he had no practical experience in dealing with aircraft crashes he was relieved that one of his most recent studies included reports on the recovery of bodies from an alpine aircrash in Canada. In that disaster, face rescue people had aided inexperienced Police to work in an unfamiliar environment. As soon as the order came to mobilise for Mt. Erebus arrangements were made for the selection of Federated Mountain Club personnel under the command of John Stanton to accompany the Police.
The following day as the Hercules winged south carrying policemen and mountaineers still recovering from the shock of their speedy mobilisation and outfitting, the Inspector drew up preliminary plans. His earlier studies went a long way towards reassuring him the job could be done. But he could reach no finality in his planning until he had viewed the scene. The day he arrived Inspector Mitchell was able to reconnoitre the crash site from a helicopter before the weather closed in.
Weather-bound for 3 days at McMurdo Base, he used the time to establish specific areas of command, lines of communications and logistical requirements. Already he regretted the staff limits imposed by accommodation shortages which initially prevented him bringing a senior sergeant to handle the administration - a task which Mike Muddiman of Christchurch was later brought in to shoulder. On the fourth day the weather cleared sufficiently for the Inspector to land with the first DVI team on the crash site.
Within an hour he had satisfied himself his plan was a good one and he knew the task was well within the capabilities of the teams. The key, he knew, was the experience of the FMC people who would be able to keep the policemen from coming to serious harm and as Operation Commander, this aspect was his prime worry.
From then on, and apart from the grimness of the task, the teams only opposition came from the vagaries of the weather. Inspector Mitchell said that periods when the teams were forced to remain in their tents were worrying for all. Each knew the operation had a deadline imposed by the annual thaw due by the 14 December, after which Hercules aircraft were unlikely to be able to land.
By 7 December the job was practically complete. The site had been cleared and all that remained was to transport the bodies and valuables back to McMurdo Base.
But once again the weather imposed its will and for the next 2 days the men were stranded on the site. With the job almost done, this period was probably the most vexing of the whole operation.
Reminisced Inspector Mitchell: "Eventually it was all over and we were on our way back home. From my point of view - and I deliberately force the tragic circumstances of the crash from my mind - the operation was extremely rewarding in terms of Police experience.
"I also found the opportunity of working with men and women of such high calibre extremely satisfying. The Police teams, the FMC men, the United States Navy personnel seconded to us, and all the other Antarctic people who helped have my fullest praise and appreciation."
Police and Federated Mountain Club people who went to Antarctica speak of the tremendous team spirit which quickly developed, even though most were comparative strangers.
For the inexperienced who found themselves at McMurdo and Scott Bases at such short notice, the prospect of living and working in the violent and inhospitable environment held great apprehension. An unavoidable 3-day wait imposed by the weather before the recovery operation could be started did little to bolster morale. All said those 3 days were interminable, allowing them too much time to reflect on the task which lay ahead.
Weighing heavily on each man was the knowledge that his efforts would be scrutinised not only by experienced Antarctic personnel, but by people the world over who waited for news in the comfort of their living rooms.
The first thoughts of 23-year-old Constable Stuart Leighton of Lower Hutt were that the inexperienced team was to implement relatively untried procedures, and work in an environment quite foreign; and at the same time had to uphold the reputation of the New Zealand Police. "The weight of these responsibilities for me was sheer hell", he said.
Later he poignantly wrote, "I was in the first group to land in the snow at the crash site. It was my first real look. I'd been preparing myself mentally for it but no matter how much I tried I could not help feeling like vomiting when I stood in the middle of the wreckage and saw what it was really like".
When the tents had been pitched and the team waited for the storms to subside, he recalled, "It was at this stage I felt the lowest throughout the whole operation. There I was in a tent on the side of Mt. Erebus with the temperature 10° below with snow buffeting the tent and with a planeload of mutilated bodies outside. All I wanted to do then was go home!"
But the sun came out, the wind dropped, and as the operation got underway, morale took a dramatic upswing. The leadership qualities of Inspector Bob Mitchell and his NCOs and the knowledge and confidence of the FMC personnel soon showed the less experienced that not only could the job be done, but that it would be done well.
But the enormity of the catastrophe had to be faced visually each day. Each man had to reconcile himself to it one way or another. One policeman developed a philosophy which is worth relating. He wrote:
"Firstly I thought that in the scheme of things, 257 people was not a large number. I thought if I was to become deeply depressed about these people I should be equally depressed about all the other world catastrophes. I made myself rationalise that if I didn't dwell on all those who have died en-masse in other disasters, then I shouldn't become depressed about this one.
"Secondly, in modern society so many of the natural risks of living had been removed. I rationalised that people would die in air crashes because it was a substituted risk of modern society.
"Thirdly, I made myself regard each body individually and not as a group. Therefore, I told myself that the grief was dispersed amongst individuals and I knew no single person had to bear it all.
"Finally I considered the variety of possibilities and the inevitability of death and thought that dying instantaneously on Mt. Erebus, doing something you wanted to do, with a glass of champagne in your hand, maybe wasn't a bad way to go."
The police in Auckland most of all, felt the weight of the emotion generated by the disaster.
To the teams led by Chief Inspector Jim Morgan, fell the ghastly task of receiving the bodies, conducting the mortuary procedures, reconciling and identifying victims, and releasing confirmed information to relatives.
They were involved until those still unidentifiable were buried in a common grave and until inquests were completed.
The rewards for those who performed these trying tasks were scant. But they must have drawn great comfort from the knowledge that they shared in achieving one of the highest victim identification rates of any air crash where substantial fragmentation had occurred. Eighty-three point four percent were identified compared with 82 percent in the Dutch K.L.M. disaster at Tenerife in 1977 and 79 percent in the P.S.A. aircrash in San Diego the following year.
The New Zealand figure is even more creditable when the site of the Mt. Erebus crash is considered. The Tenerife accident was at an airport while the other was in San Diego city.
In helping to achieve this degree of success, the Police in Auckland worked a total of 14,500 manhours, and at the operation's peak 120 police were involved.
The Bulletin has insufficient space to detail the complexities of the identification operation, but the following is a summary of the methods used: fingerprints (39), dental records (115), X-ray records (11), visual (51), photographs on documents (5), documents with names (7), jewellery (80), clothing (60), uniforms (16), other property (12), operations, scars, tattoos, missing limbs, etc. (23), other scientific comparisons (5), specific denture characteristics (3), blood groupings (3), hair comparisons (6).
(Note: A combination of more than one of these methods was used to effect positive identifications.)
Numerous legal issues arose including jurisdiction of coroners, the powers of the Attorney-General to order an inquest, the disposal of body fragments, and the nature of evidence required to register deaths.
A co-ordinating meeting was held involving representatives of Crown Law, Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Police, and discussions were held with Police legal advisers in Auckland after which legal opinions were drafted on specific areas of responsibility.
It became clear that the Attorney-General's powers under section 8 of the Coroner's Act could not be exercised since the deaths occurred outside New Zealand. But hopefully, as a result of Operation Overdue, this defect will be rectified to cover deaths on New Zealand aircraft, irrespective of where they occur.
A STITCH IN TIME
Back in 1978 Chief Inspector Ian Mills and Inspector Bob Mitchell of the Operations Directorate at Headquarters were fortunate enough to be granted Churchill Fellowships to study disaster contingency planning overseas. The Commissioner also tasked the pair to gather what information they could on Disaster Victim Identification measures and with hindsight, it's just as well.
Rather surprisingly they found that, in spite of visiting nine countries, very little information was available on DVI measures. Only the FBI and the New South Wales Police had trained DVI draughtsman teams. (New South Wales was still recovering from the Granville train disaster.)
Chief Inspector Mills then drafted procedures for incorporation in the Operations Manual and only a week before the Mt. Erebus disaster they were finally approved by the Commissioner.
In essence, the function of DVI teams is to recover bodies and any evidence available both from the scene and from detailed examinations of bodies at the mortuary, whence all evidence is passed on for reconciliation.
During the development of the procedures a training course for DVI personnel was held as a "shake-down" exercise. The field tests highlighted a number of deficiencies which were rectified and retested until they were right.
The operation debrief vindicated the plans and procedures, although there were a few defects which needed rectifying. One fault was that the suitcases holding the DVI kits were designed for use in the city and were not up to the rigours of Antarctica. They will be replaced perhaps by special knap-sacks.
Sergeant Des Gibson of Christchurch knew very well how dangerous Operation Overdue was for those at Mt. Erebus.
However he has since had cause to think fate was a little unkind in singling him out to be the only major physical casualty of the whole operation. He was part of a DVI team unloading bodies at Whenuapai RNZAF Base when he fell heavily from the back of a truck and fractured and dislocated his shoulder.
I am aware of the many letters which have already been received expressing appreciation for the excellent work done by the Police, volunteers, and other agencies in recovering and identifying the victims of the unfortunate Air New Zealand DC-10 aircraft accident which occurred in Antarctica on 28 November 1979. As your Minister, I would like to add my personal appreciation to all of the Police personnel who in any way contributed their time to what can only, by any standards, be described as a very unpleasant but highly successful operation.
The number of victims who were identified through the painstaking efforts of all who worked towards this end was 214 or 83.4 percent, which is a magnificent result having regard to the dangerous nature and isolation of the crash site from which the bodies had to be recovered.
Because co-ordination and co-operation were the key to this successful operation I am loath to select any particular group or individuals for special comment, however, the more than 1100 manhours spent by Police staff and Federated Mountain Club volunteers in Antarctica recovering the bodies of victims must be mentioned. Despite working 12 hour shifts and spending their "off duty" time at the crash site in most unpleasant conditions they declined an offer to be replaced before the task was completed. This is a true reflection of the team spirit which existed.
A very important aspect of the operation was co-ordinating the efforts of the many agencies which were involved; the United States Embassy, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Ministry of Defence, Federated Mountain Clubs, and Air New Zealand to name but a few. This was achieved by the staff of the National Co-ordination Centre at Police Headquarters who worked long hours to ensure that a high level of coordination was achieved and maintained. Here again, I am informed that the spirit of co-operation which existed amongst all agencies involved had to be experienced to be believed.
The magnitude and unpleasantness of the task during the Auckland segment of the operation which involved the reception and storage of the victims prior to being processed, the detailed examination of the bodies to obtain all possible evidence, the recording of data and the reconciliation of that information with that obtained from families and numerous other sources, was a mammoth undertaking. To these tasks was added the sympathetic handling of relatives of the deceased with all the inherent problems and the large number of inquiries which were necessary so that individual identifications could be achieved.
That Police members, pathologists, dentists, and many other groups and individuals were able to work together in such harmony clearly demonstrates to me the soundness of the procedures used. Although the total number of manhours expended at Auckland is not yet known, I am aware that 120 Police members contributed 2565 hours of overtime. Of the 120 staff involved, 12 were deployed from the start of the operation and worked until its conclusion.
The training undertaken early in 1979 by a number of selected Police staff in disaster victim identification techniques showed considerable foresight. Although Antarctica was never really considered as a likely testing ground for the procedures the training and preplanning proved its worth. The service must be delighted that it had such a sound base from which to work when the need arose.
In conclusion, throughout this operation I was kept fully informed of progress, and in consequence I am aware of the tremendous responsibility placed upon the Police to bring this recovery operation to a successful conclusion. That you have done so with such excellent results is a tribute to the Police Service of which I am justifiably proud to be its Minister.
AUCKLAND "THANK YOU"
More than 200 Police members, civilian staff, and guests attended a function at Auckland Central Station on 24 January, to mark the completion of their participation in Operation Overdue.
From a hastily assembled team of about 30 in the early evening of November 28, the numbers had expanded rapidly, as DVI, body handling, property inquiry, reconciliation and inquest teams, and typists assembled.
Among those present at the function were Police from other districts, typists, morticians, doctors and pathologists, dentist, and Air New Zealand representatives. Their co-operation throughout the 7 long weeks of the exercise had been magnificent. Chief Inspector J. Morgan who had been in charge of the mortuary team throughout was the function's M.C., and guests were addressed by Assistant Commissioner E. J. Trappitt and Deputy Assistant Commissioner K. G. Sykes.
Mr Trappitt presented five N.Z. Police plaques, complete with inscribed commemorative silver plate , to senior members of the various disciplines who had given invaluable aid throughout including the Auckland University School of Medicine (Department of Pathology), represented by Professor Herdson; Auckland Hospital Board Dental Department (Mr Pert); New Zealand Dental Association (Mr Swinburn); Auckland Hospital Department of Radiology (Professor Alexander); and Air New Zealand management and staff (Messrs Davies and Bereford).
Also singled out for thanks were the city's embalmer and undertakers, and Refrigerated Freightlines Ltd., who supplied free of charge mobile freezing facilities.
In his reply, Mr Beresford presented to Mr Trappitt, as a gesture to the whole Police team, a large, framed Certificate of Appreciation from Air New Zealand, which will be displayed in the Auckland Police Club.
A film has been commissioned to illustrate DVI, mortuary, and reconciliation procedures.
Acutely aware of the lack of reference material suitable for training purposes on these subjects, Chief Inspector Ian Mills of the Operations Directorate arranged for the National Film Unit to film mortuary procedures. This material will be associated with library film of previous Antarctic flights and with colour slides of the body recovery operation from Mt. Erebus.
A professional narrator will put the finishing touches to the film which will then be used as a training aid in New Zealand. The film will also be made available to overseas Police agencies.
Lady Luck seemed to smile on Constable Trevor Maskelyne late last year when first prize in a raffle won him a seat on the ill-fated flight 90l. But she turned her back on him the moment the passenger door slammed shut at Auckland airport.
Twenty-six-year-old Trevor was very active in SAR Ironically, the single prize was in a raffle organised by the Central Taranaki Search and Rescue Association. Trevor had spent all of his 4½ years service at New Plymouth, where he was highly regarded by his colleagues and by the local community.
The Bulletin joins with the whole Police service in expressing its deepest sympathy to Trevor's widow Susan and his parents, Massey and Colleen.
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