29 November 2004
Remnants of the crashed DC10 on Mt Erebus have emerged
from the Antarctic snow and ice as New Zealand remembers
its worst peacetime tragedy.
A party that flew to the crash site for a 25th anniversary
memorial service yesterday morning was stunned to see a
section of the fuselage with the letter "a" and the Air New Zealand
colours clearly visible.
A jet engine and orange cargo netting lay further up the slope.
The wreckage has not been seen for years but a light snow year
and an unusually warm spring have combined to reveal a stark
reminder of the tragic end of flight TE901, with the loss of all 257
On a clear, relatively mild day of -6 degrees celsius, those present could only ask again: How could this have happened?
The jet, flying on the wrong co-ordinates and in whiteout conditions, struck Erebus just 500 metres above sea level.
An enormous iceberg is now lodged below the crash site and the open sea is far on the horizon.
In a simple, poignant ceremony yesterday, water from Mt Cook/Aoraki, gifted by Ngai Tahu, was sprinkled at a memorial cross on a bare rocky rise one kilometre above the speck of wreckage.
The Very Rev Peter Beck, Dean of Christchurch, said the water was a symbol of blessing and of love.
He donned a white robe an alb and a purple stole over thermal survival clothing to conduct the short ceremony.
His mukluk snow boots peeped from beneath the robe as he prayed.
Three wreaths were laid in this place of unparalleled solitude and grandeur, where there is no sound but the wind.
Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff represented the Government; chairman Paul Hargreaves, Antarctica NZ, and Scott Base services manager Major Graeme Tod stood in for Air New Zealand.
As well as 200 New Zealanders, citizens of the United States, Japan, Britain, Australia, Canada, Switzerland and France died in the crash.
The party returned by helicopter from Erebus across the frozen sea ice and Ross Ice Shelf to Scott Base for a public ceremony that included Americans from nearby McMurdo Base. The half-hour remembrance included hymns and readings, a specially commissioned poem by Bill Manhire, read by Sir Edmund Hillary, and music composed by Christopher Cree Brown.
The ceremony was moved inside to the base mess after the skies clouded and the temperature dropped to -12.
Dave Bresnahan, National Science Foundation representative at McMurdo both now and at the time of the crash, spoke movingly, his voice breaking, of the frustration of not knowing what had happened.
"We, just like those in New Zealand, waited and waited and waited. All afternoon.
"Shortly after midnight we got personnel to the site and learnt that no one survived the impact. I can't express how that felt. "I clearly remember walking back from our control centre back to my quarters about 2 o'clock in the morning. It was dead quiet. No wind. Very calm. People all over McMurdo were hanging out the windows, looking out the doors, watching me walk across. Not a word was spoken. Everyone knew."
Sir Edmund Hillary, who was due to be on the flight as commentator but was replaced by his climbing and polar companion Peter Mulgrew, said he lost his best friend that day.
Mr Goff said time and nature had healed the scars on the mountain but those who lost loved ones would be grieving on the anniversary. He told the media it was quite possible the truth of what happened lay somewhere between the view of Chief Inspector of Air Accidents Ron Chippindale that the pilots erred, and that of royal commissioner Justice Mahon, who blamed Air New Zealand's "predetermined plan of deception" and "orchestrated litany of lies. Most certainly the co-ordinates were wrongly programmed; the pilots were not advised of that. Other measures ought perhaps to have been taken by the crew at the time when they were uncertain of their position."
But the debate at this point was less important than simply to remember the tragedy and the lives lost.
"Our hearts go out not only to those who had friends who were passengers but to the families of the crew, who have suffered a great deal."
At 11.49am (Antarctic time) the moment of impact people moved outside Scott Base and stood, heads bowed, in a bitter wind before the New Zealand flag flying at half mast.