EREBUS – MY STORY - Inspector Stuart Leighton, NZ Police

 Joining the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) Squad
 
I joined the New Zealand Police in January 1975 as a 17-year-old Police Cadet. I graduated 19 months later and was posted to the Lower Hutt Police Station.
 
One day in late 1978, my sergeant read out a report at fall-in asking for any volunteers to join a newly-developed Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) Squad.
 
They were looking for a sergeant and a constable based in the Hutt. The rationale behind the squad, as I understood it, was to be prepared for a major disaster like an earthquake in Wellington. They wanted a core of trained personnel in teams of two to be ready to respond.
 
“Why not?” I thought. If an earthquake hits Wellington I’m going to be involved anyway, I might as well be trained. So up went my hand.
 
In March 1979 I was at the Police College in Trentham on the very first DVI training course. The course was developed by Chief Inspector Ian Mills and Inspector Robert (Bob) Mitchell. I was by far the youngest member.
 
The purpose of the course was to train us in most up-to-date DVI techniques. The combined wisdom and experience of the course members also helped refine the techniques for the NZ environment.
 
At the time, only two other police agencies in the world had trained DVI squads, the FBI in the United States and the New South Wales Police in Australia.
 
The day of the crash
 
On the day of the crash I was with the other Wellington based DVI teams at Police National Headquarters. The purpose of the visit to HQ was to have a look at the amended DVI procedures. They had been adapted after feedback from the recent course at the College, and as a result of feedback from a recent DC-10 crash in Chicago. There would have been about 12 people at the meeting.
 
At the end of the meeting, about lunch time, I returned to the Lower Hutt Police Station with my sergeant and a very experienced senior constable.
 
As we were driving back towards the Hutt at about 1.00pm and near the Petone rail bridge the senior constable said. “You know, I have been in the police for over 25 years and we have never had to use these procedures, and we never will”. I later worked out it was about this time the aircraft actually crashed.
 
Because of its irony, the memory is burned into my mind. I often think about it. 
 
After duty that day I had a date with my girlfriend (now my wife). I remember riding my motorbike to her house, as we had a date to go to the local pictures. At tea time her brother, who worked for Telecom, phoned up. He said Telecom was monitoring radio waves and had learned an Air New Zealand DC-10 was overdue on a flight to Antarctica.
 
I can remember saying “Oh god, if it’s crashed they will probably use me on the body recovery. I might have to use my new skills and the new police procedures to recover the bodies.” I never really thought it would come true. At that stage it wasn’t public knowledge and there was still hope it was OK.
 
We got back to her parents at about 10.30pm and, of course, it was all over the TV. The plane was still overdue and, in fact, was down as the fuel reserves were used up. I can remember feeling very nervous and a bit upset as I remembered my previous comments as well as the comments made by the senior constable that afternoon. 
 
I returned home to my flat which I shared with my younger brother and another police officer who was working night shift that night. I can remember being woken at about 1.30am by a phone call from my flat mate. He informed me the wreckage had been located in Antarctica and headquarters in Wellington had rung the station wanting my home phone number. It was obvious I was at least being considered to be sent to the ice. The police operation to recover and identify the bodies has been called "Operation Overdue"
 
I felt very uneasy and found it difficult to get to sleep. I didn’t really think I would actually go. [I thought that way right up to the time the plane taking us to the ice physically left Christchurch].
 
Apprehension at this point was mixed with a certain amount of excitement. The details were still unknown and I guess one of the reasons I didn’t sleep very well was that I was waiting for the phone call placing me on standby.
 
The day of departure
 
I was beginning to think I wouldn’t get the call up. When I wasn’t called that night I actually felt disappointed. The call, when it did come, was short and to the point. I was told wreckage had been located and I was being placed on standby. I was to pack clothing suitable to go to Antarctica.
 
At that point I didn’t know what to think. What do you pack to take to Antarctica? I didn’t have much bush clothing and I’d never been in snow before. Early the next morning my brother rang around and borrowed some clothing for me. I also rang home to advise my parents I was on standby. My dad was pretty good about it, or so he seemed, but my mother was upset. I did my best to reassure them both but there wasn’t much they could do about it.
 
At that time my thoughts about the ice and crash site - which was on the side of a mountain - were of wind and snow blowing about, and that we would be climbing rock faces, tied together with rope recovering bodies. This picture was built up by my imagination based on my general lack of knowledge and by listening to the radio and hearing ‘experts’ speculating.
 
As I’d never been in snow and ice before, I was worried about not having the mountaineering skills to climb the mountain - as I thought we’d have to. Yet I felt important for being placed on standby. All through this, I doubted I’d be selected.
 
The rest of the morning was spent packing my clothes and waiting around listening to the radio and watching TV. Of course, 100% of the content was Erebus related. As time went by and I didn’t hear any more I thought, “That’s it, we won’t be going". The operation might be off.
 
At about midday the call came confirming I was going. I was told I had to be at Wellington airport for a departure within the hour and I’d be picked up in 15 minutes.
 
I only had time to phone by brother at work and my parents. I remember my dad answering the phone. As soon as he heard my voice he said, “You’re going aren’t you?” I simply replied, “Yes, tell mum. I can’t wait, I have to go.” I also reassured him they wouldn’t place us in any danger and I would contact him as soon as I could. I didn’t have any more time. Things were happening so fast and my ride was due to arrive any minute.
 
I was driven to the airport and met the rest of the guys who were going down. I knew most of the police personnel from Wellington, but there were police officers from Auckland and I didn’t know any of them. They were all search & rescue trained and knew nothing of DVI. We were all quite apprehensive about what lay ahead.
 
At this point we knew accommodation was a problem on the ice, and some of us would be left behind. I felt sure I’d be one of the ones remaining at home.
 
Not withstanding that, we flew to Christchurch to the Antarctic Division of the DSIR to be fitted out in the required clothing. Two other police officers with alpine search and rescue experience also joined us there. That brought the total number of police personnel to 11. The decision was made about who would be left behind. No police were left behind, but some mountaineers were.
 
Before we knew it, we were on an RNZAF C-130 hercules headed for the ice. The flight was scheduled to take 8 hours and we departed Christchurch at about 5.00pm.
 
The flight was different to any I’d taken before. The plane was full of cargo pellets and equipment. We had to find a place to sit at the front on webbing seats that ran along the side of the plane. It was cold and very noisy and we had to put ear plugs in. Conversation was difficult.
 
The flight over the Antarctic was really quite beautiful. It was also strange taking off in the evening to then fly into daylight.