Ex-cop recounts search for Erebus victims' bodies
28 November 2004
Russell Blackler will never forget the sight of scavenging birds pecking at the bodies strewn in the snow of Mt Erebus.
It was almost 25 years ago and the police officer was among 13 people given the horrific job of scooping body parts out of the wreckage.
Mr Blackler remembers how the officers fired flares at the screeching birds and covered the bodies with snow to protect them from hungry beaks as small teams of three and four sifted through the wreckage of the Air New Zealand DC10 that was spread over 600m on the snowy slopes of the volcano.
Now aged 57 and living in Tauranga, Mr Blackler recalls helping bag 119 bodies some just legs or arms as the quarter-century anniversary of the crash is marked today.
"Our team was lucky we had mainly intact bodies to deal with," he says.
A quarter of a century ago today, 237 passengers and 20 crew fastened their seat belts for an 11-hour sightseeing joy ride over Antarctica.
At 8.20am on November 28, 1979, the jet slammed into Mt Erebus killing all on board the special trip in what remains this country's deadliest peacetime disaster.
AdvertisementAdvertisementThe horrific job of dealing with the aftermath fell to a 13-strong New Zealand police team, along with pathologists and mountaineers.
After Flight 901 struck the massive mountain, Mr Blacker had just finished work at Wellington central police station and was listening to a radio on his way home when it blared out news of the missing airliner.
"At first I joked about it, wondering how a plane like that could get lost," he recalled. But the next news bulletin reported the missing plane would no longer have enough fuel left to still be airborne.
Within hours Mr Blackler was called back to the police station and told to start preparing a specialist police team, trained in disaster victim identification, to head to Antarctica.
"I got some money and grabbed a few woolly jerseys and there I was as bright as a button ready to go."
It was about 1am when the team landed on the ice near McMurdo base, into a blaze of bright sunlight. "We were then sent out training for four days acclimatisation and taught how to use ice picks. That's when it got a bit scary."
The recovery teams were then helicoptered to the crash scene.
"We flew in over the top of Mt Erebus and only then did I realise it was an active volcano." The plane wreckage was pointed out to the team. "It looked like a cigarette stubbed out on the carpet. Just a black smudge against the white snow. "As we got closer it dawned on me that it was quite major."
There were a couple of small points that helped him steel himself for the work. "I didn't know anyone on the flight so I knew I wasn't going to find Aunt Agatha," Mr Blackler said. "The other thing was, there were no children."
The teams worked 12-hour shifts, retiring to tents erected on the slopes only 200m from the wreckage. Their approach was clinical. When a body was found, a flag was placed near it and the body or parts bagged and documented.
"I had seen many dead bodies in car crashes as a police officer in New Zealand," Mr Blackler said. "I had the mindset that we were there to do a job and 'let's get on with it here's the first one let's bag it and get on with the paperwork'."
During the meticulous search of the snow, the grim task of examining the fuselage fell to Mr Blackler. "It ended up burning some of the bodies and that's where we found the pilots.
"At the time it didn't seem that horrible, we had a job to do.
"But lying back in the tent at night, I thought it was pretty horrible."
The exhausting work in sub-zero temperatures was dotted with brief flickers of humour. Mr Blackler remembers spotting magnums of premier bubbly lying near the site. "They were lying there on the snow perfectly chilled. The doctor told us we had to keep our fluids up, so we did."
Once the bodies had been collected, the team turned to scouring the scene for personal items like cameras and wallets. "We really searched because those things were really important for the next of kin."
After 13 days, five on Erebus, the team flew home.
Incredibly, Mr Blackler said he was not affected by the experience. "I was fortunate. I have a good sense of humour and laughed a few of the gruesome things off down there. That's the way I cope with everything. I just get on and do it."
Mr Blackler retired from the police after 31 years and moved to Tauranga two years ago. Now the former policeman and builder is the caretaker at Tauranga Primary School.