The helicopter landing pad under construction. © 1979 Unknown.
Whiteout conditions had prevented the transporting of the other DVI personnel to the crash site consequently delaying the commencement of the body recovery.
During this period we spent the time assisting in the building of the helicopter landing pad, and marked the location of bodies throughout the crash site. Humps covered with windblown snow indicated the position of buried bodies.
I drew a plan of the crash site grid. The 30m2 sections were numbered 1-23 in four rows, from the bottom to the top of the site. There were 92 sections. However, the grid later had to be expanded by four sections when bodies were located outside the surveyed grid. The plan was used to record the position and number of victims located in each grid section during the recovery operation. Each body recovery team would be assigned to a specific section to clear it of all victims. When complete, the section was marked off on the plan and the team assigned to the next section.
After a clearance in the weather late Monday evening, sufficient officers arrived to form two body recovery teams. Each consisted of two police officers and a United States Navy photographer from McMurdo Base. The teams were accompanied at all times by a Face Rescue team member for safety.
A United States Navy doctor was on the site initially to examine the victims and pronounce life extinct.
At approximately 2.00am, on Tuesday, 4th December, the body recovery operation commenced. Starting at the top section of the grid, working down the site, all bodies had to be chipped and dug out of the ice and snow. They were marked in position, photographed and all DVI details recorded before removal to the side of the crash site for later return by helicopter to McMurdo.
Because of weather delays we were determined to make progress with the body recovery and worked until 6.00pm on Tuesday evening. We knew that results were wanted and relatives of victims would be waiting.
During this 16-hour shift, 56 sections of the crash site were cleared. The weather again closed in, and although there was 24-hour daylight, visibility was restricted to a metre or two by thick mist and fog. With assistance however from Face Rescue personnel, this was negotiated safely.
Moving up and down the crash site with body recovery kits and equipment made for heavy and tiring work. Even though the temperature was constantly below freezing, the survival clothing provided was extremely effective.
A view from the bottom of the crash site. © 1979, Stuart Leighton
In spite of the conditions, all that was wanted after walking up the site was a cold drink. Ironically it was necessary to boil cans of orange juice as they were frozen solid.
This first day of the body recovery operation was of vital importance. Good progress was made and consequently morale was high. All involved were determined to continue and were of the opinion, given good weather, the recovery operation could be completed sooner than expected.
To achieve this, we needed to have all four DVI teams working on the site. The campsite needed to be expanded to accommodate all DVI and other personnel on the mountain at the same time.
The remaining two DVI teams, under the command of Sergeant Mark Penn, arrived on the mountain on Tuesday evening. After briefing Sergeant Penn I returned with the first two teams to McMurdo for an overnight break.
Inspector Mitchell was briefed on progress and the conditions. After a welcome hot shower and phone call home to our families from the only telephone at Scott Base, we were determined to return and complete our task.
The possibility of replacing body recovery personnel because of the stressful nature of the job was raised by Inspector Mitchell. This was not well received. All Officers had coped well and had been medically assessed. None indicated they wanted to be relieved of their duties; spirits were high. We knew that the job could be completed, and were determined to do so.
The issue of replacement officers was not pursued because of timing and logistical difficulties that the location presented.
When we returned to the crash site the next day, again good progress had been made by Sergeant Penn's teams. We decided that from then on we would work around the clock, my teams between 6.00pm and 6.00am and Sergeant Penn's teams from 6.00am to 6.00pm. This 24-hour coverage would result in the recovery operation being completed within the week.
We were also conscious that the ice runway at McMurdo would start breaking up from the 14th of December which would obviously prevent RNZAF aircraft, necessary to complete the operation, from using it.
During these shifts, progress was determined by the weather, the amount of digging or chipping required, and recovery of victims from dangerous locations such as under large, heavy pieces of wreckage and checking crevasses. Fatigue was a problem and it was necessary to take regular breaks to rest and get away from the traumatic task.
Sleeping was particularly difficult because of what we were dealing with, thoughts of family at home, freezing temperatures, continual daylight, the constant squawking of Skua gulls hovering over the crash site and, for me on a lighter note, the snoring of a representative of McDonnell-Douglas, makers of the DC-10, who I invited into my tent after I found him trying to sleep in the snow because of the shortage of accommodation.
We remained in the same clothing while on the mountain. The most difficult task, after sleeping, was trying to put mukluks (boots) back on which had frozen solid.
On Thursday evening the end of the body recovery operation was in sight. With the heavy concentration of victims in the centre sections near the large piece of fuselage, all four DVI teams worked together to complete the task. In the early hours of Friday morning, the recovery of victims from the site was complete.
Contact searches of the site were then completed to ensure that no human remains had been missed. A considerable amount of personal property and various forms of identification were recovered during these searches.
The weather deteriorated again following the completion of the body recovery. This was a trying time for everyone on the mountain. The weather delayed the completion of transportation of the remaining victims to McMurdo.
The weather was extremely miserable with whiteout conditions. It was particularly cold and snowed heavily over these days. The majority of this time was spent sheltering in our tents, sleeping and reflecting. Despite this there was a sense of relief; the harrowing and strenuously demanding body recovery had been completed safely in dangerous and hazardous conditions, and quicker than expected. Our thoughts had turned to returning to McMurdo and home.
The weather eventually cleared on Sunday morning which enabled completion of the transportation of the remaining crash victims to McMurdo for return to New Zealand. The police DVI squad members returned to McMurdo by helicopter throughout the morning while the Face Rescue personnel remained to dismantle the camp site.
Debriefings were held during this time at McMurdo, and before leaving a significant occasion was the construction of a cross by all who had been involved in the recovery operation in memory of those who died. This was later placed in a prominent position above the crash site.
We eventually arrived back in New Zealand in the early hours of the 12th of December, 14 days after having left.
The 'success', if this can be said in respect to such a tragic event, of the body recovery operation on Mt Erebus was due to the efforts of a small group of DVI trained police officers, assisted by mountain safety, US Navy and other support personnel both on the mountain and at McMurdo and Scott Bases, who all worked in co-operation together. There was a professional and sensitive approach to the body-handling role, and a positive attitude throughout on the crash site with a 'let's get it done’ attitude to the task. The body recovery completed by so few on Erebus really was an incredible effort under the circumstances.
Any signs of the effect on individuals of the harrowing body-handling experience were not evident at the time because we steeled ourselves to face the task we had been trained for. Despite the unpleasantness, spirits remained high and we were determined to recover all bodies located for return to New Zealand. Any that were not located would have been buried under the large piece of fuselage which could not be moved. In all, 348 bodies or part bodies were located and recovered. 214 were eventually identified.
Limited support and counselling was available on our return. This and the lack of official recognition until 27 years later (2007), of those who worked on the body-recovery and identification phases of 'Operation Overdue' was difficult to understand and accept, considering the magnitude and nature of the job. This has certainly changed today for police officers and others attending traumatic events. It was only later, and for some many years later, that the effects of the experience came to the fore. No one could be completely unaffected after involvement in such a challenging task. Although I didn’t believe it would at the time, it did to a certain extent change my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Erebus at some time, and things such as catching the smell of aviation fuel or diesel put me immediately back on the mountain.
I try not to dwell on the specific task we undertook but rather, like other New Zealanders I think of the overall sadness and tragedy of the disaster. My involvement however, has impacted greatly on my family over the years.
Something positive for me to come out of this tragic event, is the bond and friendship developed through meeting family of some of those who died.
What has really troubled me over the years though as a police officer, is the issue of pilot, Captain Jim Collins’ ring binder notebook, which was located amongst the wreckage and handed to me on the site. It was intact and contained numerous pages of legible technical writing and figures that indicated they related to the flying of aircraft. We recognised that this could be of importance to any investigation into the crash, and I sealed and secured it in a bag before it was returned to McMurdo.
The ring binder was later produced in 1981 at the Commission of Inquiry into the disaster in an altered condition to how it was found, in that the pages were missing. It had earlier been returned to Mrs Collin's in this condition by an airline official. The reason why and how the pages came to be missing has never been satisfactorily explained or resolved.
G J Gilpin M.N.Z.M
Inspector, NZ Police