Personal Account from the Ice - Inspector Gilpin

Inspector Gilpin is one of the officers who led the body recovery operation on Mt Erebus in 1979. He is still a serving officer in his 45th year of policing. Other major disasters he worked on over the years included the sinking of the interisland ferry, Wahine, in Wellington Harbour (1968); the Sprott house fire, Wellington (1969); and the sinking of the Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov in the Malborough Sounds (1986).  

 

On the 29th of November 1979, I was one of 11 police officers who flew by Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules C-130 to Antarctica following the crash of Air New Zealand Flight TE901 into the side of Mt Erebus the previous day. At the time I was a sergeant with 14 years police service and was stationed at Taranaki Street Police Station in central Wellington.

The crash site on Mt Erebus.

The police group comprised of Search and Rescue and Disaster Victim Identification Squad (DVI) trained officers. DVI is an internationally recognised system of body recovery and identification of victims of large-scale disasters. The squad was formed months prior to the Erebus disaster.

The Antarctic phase of 'Operation Overdue' was under the command of Inspector Robert Mitchell. There were four non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and six constables from various locations around New Zealand.

From the time of the formation of the squad we periodically trained in DVI procedures in preparation for deployment should such a disaster occur. Never did we imagine that, if we were ever required, it would be out of New Zealand in one of the coldest, most inhospitable and remote but beautiful regions of the world. Coincidentally on the 28th of November, the day of the DC-10 disaster, a revision day was held for the DVI squad at Police National Headquarters, Wellington. I remember an officer remarking during this that he doubted whether we would ever be deployed.

Following this, I worked a late shift and became aware that flight TE901 was overdue. It occurred to me that the DVI squad may be called upon, but thought if the aircraft had gone down in Antarctica, the location and environment may rule that out.

Like all of New Zealand that evening, I was stunned. I listened to media updates and could not sleep. At around 3am the next morning, I was phoned at home and informed that the aircraft had been located on the slopes of Mt Erebus, there appeared to be no survivors and that I was on standby to go.

I arrived at work early that morning and was told the DVI squad would be deployed to Antarctica. I returned home to pack and was confronted with what clothing to take considering the environment we were heading to.

I said an emotional farewell to my wife and three young children and because of the type of job we were heading to, and the location, genuinely wondered whether I would see them again.

We flew to Christchurch and were outfitted with survival clothing and footwear at the DSIR Antarctic Division, Christchurch Airport. Along with New Zealand Mountain Face Rescue personnel who would look after our safety on the mountain, we left Christchurch Airport at 5.15pm on the 29th of November, arriving at Williams Field, McMurdo Sound in the early hours of the 30th of November.

The flight was one of contemplation on what lay ahead. The whole country was grieving and affected by the disaster, New Zealand’s worst in terms of loss of life, and we knew that the eyes of the country and to some extent, the world were on us.

We were well aware that families of the deceased would be wanting a speedy return of their loved ones.

I had no doubts, even taking into account the magnitude of the disaster and what we would face, that I could cope with the recovery of victims. Because of my experience from the type of work I had been involved in during my policing career to that stage, I was well prepared.

It was the unknown conditions we would encounter, affecting our safety on the crash site that caused some apprehension. Like some other officers in the DVI squad, I had never worked in snow or ice, let alone on the side of a mountain in the coldest region of the world.

But I was prepared and committed to fulfil my role and do what we had been trained to do as a squad, and put my faith in the Face Rescue personnel to look after our safety, and some prayer.

As we flew over the Antarctic continent the beauty was very evident, highlighting the reasons why sightseeing flights were so popular.

DVI team returns from survival training
The DVI team returns from survival training. © 1979. Stuart Leighton.

As we neared Ross Island the Hercules pilot drew our attention to the DC-10 crash site. It appeared in the distance as a slight smudge in the snow on the northern slopes of Mt Erebus. This was a very poignant moment.

We were accommodated in the American Navy Base at McMurdo and were made extremely welcome with every convenience and facility extended to us.

The first few days were taken up with negotiations between police and senior personnel from Scott Base and McMurdo in preparation for the recovery operation.

The weather during this period prevented the deployment of the DVI teams to the crash site.

With other NCOs I attended briefings with Inspector Mitchell and McMurdo and Scott Base officials. These mainly concerned safety issues, conditions we would encounter and procedures on the crash site.

We underwent survival training with mountain safety personnel on Ross Island during this time. This was of immense value and from knowledge gained of site conditions from briefings, and with the training provided, most apprehension was dispelled.

On the 1st of December I was appointed site co-ordinator of the recovery teams by Inspector Mitchell and at 8.30am on Monday the 3rd of December, after the weather cleared, along with Inspector Mitchell and Constable Stuart Leighton, flew by helicopter to the crash site. Other DVI team members were to follow on later flights.

There were already Face Rescue personnel on the site and a small campsite had been established.

A helicopter landing pad had not been completed and we had to jump onto the crash site slope. We slid down the slope, after suitcases containing DVI equipment.

 
Sergeant Greg Gilpin, Constable Stuart Leighton, Inspector Robert (Bob)Mitchell inspecting the wreckage.

 

As the first police officers on the site, along with John Stanton of the Face Rescue team, we commenced an inspection of the crash site.

The scene that confronted us was one of utter destruction - both human and aircraft. Numerous bodies were visible scattered amongst the wreckage spread over the crash site. Nothing could really prepare anyone for such a large scale scene of devastation and death. It was difficult to comprehend that such a large aircraft could disintegrate into such small pieces.

It was evident to me from both the human and aircraft destruction that no one would have survived the impact.

The crash site was approximately 760m above sea level on a 14-degree

A crevasse. © 1979 Stuart Leighton

slope, and extended 700m long by 120m wide. It had already been surveyed into 30m2 sections; these were marked out with black flags on bamboo stakes.

 

There were a number of crevasses towards the bottom of the site and a huge amount of twisted sharp jagged metal wreckage and potentially dangerous gas cylinders from the aircraft, over the entire crash site. Crevasses had been marked with red danger flags and any bodies visible at that stage indicated with green flags.

These dangers, along with numerous large holes throughout the crash site, plus hard ice and snow, would obviously present problems for us. After completing the site inspection I was confident that with care and safety guidance from the mountaineers we would manage these dangers. I was also confident from my observations that we would be able to complete our actual body handling role.

There was a heavy concentration of bodies in the sections towards the top of the crash site in the vicinity of a large piece of aircraft fuselage.

The Central Fuselage of the DC10. © 1979 Stuart Leighton

Many bodies were clearly visible and accessible. Others were buried by snow and ice and it was obvious that these would have to be dug out.

At the bottom of the crash site there was a perfect imprint of the underbelly and wings of the DC-10 in the snow. This indicated that the aircraft was pulling up at the time of impact and disintegrated as it travelled up the slope of the mountain throwing those on board out as it went.

The imprint of the DC10 Underbelly. © NZ Police.

Following the site inspection the weather deteriorated and Inspector Mitchell returned to McMurdo where he would then remain to co-ordinate the recovery operation.

We were soon to learn the dangers and suddenness of the changeable weather conditions. Without any real warning a severe storm blew up with gale force winds and snow. The temperature dropped with the wind chill factor to the vicinity of minus 40 degrees.

Constable Leighton and I sheltered in small tents at the campsite and I remember at one stage during this thinking, ‘How are we going to survive this?’ it was so severe.

A severe wind storm. © 1979 NZ Police.

After several hours the storm abated and, on emerging, our tents were virtually under snow. On inspecting the crash site again it had changed considerably. Bodies and wreckage, which were previously visible, were now covered with snow, and others not visible initially were now exposed.

We later experienced, short, violent sudden storms with swirling winds periodically sweeping across the crash site during the recovery operation, creating danger from flying jagged wreckage. It was necessary to move quickly and take shelter.