Grim job after Erebus
25 November 2004
Funeral director Francis Day savoured the fresh air as he walked from his hotel to an Auckland mortuary 25 years ago, knowing the horrors he was about to face.
Mr Day, from Nelson, headed the embalming team that dealt with bodies returned to New Zealand after the Mt Erebus crash in Antarctica.
In some ways, embalmers were forgotten members of the aftermath teams, he said.
"People thought we were used to dealing with bodies, but none of us was prepared for a disaster like that. We would never experience it in our normal working patterns."
The crash on November 28, 1979, killed 257 people when an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight slammed into the side of the volcano.
Days later, frozen bodies and remains were flown from Antarctica to Whenuapai air force base in West Auckland, then taken by road to the now-closed mortuary at the Auckland School of Medicine - the only one in the country large enough to cope.
Mr Day helped prepare bodies for identification and embalm them for burial or repatriation overseas. "I joined the team in early December and worked 12-14 hour days until December 22," he said. "We were faced with horrific conditions, such as decomposition once the bodies thawed, and bodies covered in aviation fuel, but we overcame it and tried to bring a sense of dignity to the whole thing."
The day the first bodies arrived has stuck in his mind.
"I remember reporters and photographers trying to get up over a wall to get pictures, which was most undignified."
At the end, 213 bodies were identified, and a burial service was held in Auckland for the 44 unidentified victims.
Police working on the Erebus aftermath were offered some mental support but Mr Day, in his early 30s at the time, said there was nothing for the embalmers, forensic dentists or pathologists.
"The work was just expected of us, but in fact, a lot of our people suffered - two young embalmers left the profession afterwards."
Mr Day "struggled" for two or three years, but said it had helped to return to the same Auckland hotel each night with the rest of the all-male crew of embalmers.
"We loved breathing the fresh air on the walk to the mortuary in the mornings."
Mr Day and his colleagues knew things would have been different if the crash had been on home soil, with bodies arriving almost immediately.
About 18 months later a national disaster response team was set up, which co-ordinator Simon Manning, of Wellington, said could cope with up to 600 deaths today.
"We understood by what we had to do for Erebus that there could be a multi-death situation too big for local funeral homes to handle on their own," Mr Manning said.
"We now have 170-180 embalmers available at any time, and from the funeral industry we would have staff of up to 250, available to work in one place."
The response team would co-ordinate chemicals, repatriation paperwork, funerals, and peer support to deal with psychological impact, and would not expect to be paid.
Funeral homes dealt with an average of one funeral a day, Mr Manning said.
"One funeral director who worked through Erebus told me to imagine opening a door and seeing your whole year's work in front of you - that was the enormity of it."