Arrival on the ice
I can remember feeling apprehensive when we were due to land on the ice. We had flown over Mt Erebus and past the crash site. Although I looked out the window I couldn’t see it. None of us had any idea what to expect on landing.
We put on all our clothing and looked like Eskimos when we walked off the plane. I thought there would be blizzard type conditions and we would need to be wearing all the issued clothing. Instead, we all felt over dressed. We were met by a Commander from the American Navy in a big van. By comparison he was wearing quite light clothing without a jacket. He drove us to an accommodation block at the American base at McMurdo where we had bunk beds with just mattresses and nothing else.
At that time of year, there’s continuous daylight in the Antarctic. We spent the next three days at the American base before we were due to go to the crash site.
It’s a bit hard to remember exactly the order in which events occurred. However, I do remember early on that a meeting was called for all personnel going to be involved in the recovery. We were welcomed by the base commander. Then our Officer in Charge, Inspector Mitchell - who had developed our procedures and delivered our earlier training - gave us a briefing on our roles.
I was told I would remain at the crash site base camp to establish and maintain radio communication with McMurdo. I was also tasked to basically be a logistics officer and give support where needed to assist with the smooth running of the camp, including cooking duties.
I wasn’t very impressed. I felt it was a safe role and I’d been excluded from the real job of recovering bodies. After all, that was the reason we were here. I knew deep down I’d probably been selected for this role because of my age. I was 22 at the time. I felt it was an attempt to protect me to some extent. Instead of being grateful, I was quite resentful inside but said nothing. I couldn’t say anything as it was a job that needed to be done and someone had to do it. When on a police operation you just get on with what you’re told to do.
My duties included going through all our equipment to make sure it was all present and in working order. Our equipment was contained in suitcases. No one ever anticipated we would need to bring them to the Antarctic. They were totally impractical for the task. As a result of this lesson, DVI equipment is now contained in back packs. I was kept busy checking our equipment for awhile. It also gave us the opportunity to train the Auckland and Christchurch Officers as well as the American photographers assigned to us in the DVI procedures.
During this time you could feel the tension building. We were getting feedback from the crash site but we still had preparation to do before we were ready to see what confronted us.
We all had to go through a short course in snow survival before we were considered fit to go to the crash site. As I’d never been in the snow before I obviously didn’t have the skills required to look after myself. That really made me worried, so it was good to at least acquire some knowledge.
We were taken from Scott Base to their skiing area in a snow tractor. We then walked for some distance and ascended some quite steep snow slopes. I found some of this difficult as it involved walking up pure ice in parts. It was like trying to walk up glass.
We were then shown how to use an ice axe properly, including how to stop your slide down a steep slope if you fell over. I found this quite a challenge. It involved lying on your back while someone held your feet. They then lowered you over a steep cliff and let you go. You had to roll over and use your axe to dig into the snow to stop your slide. Quite scary, but I enjoyed it… when it was over.
My feelings at this point, as far as I can recall, were of taking one day at a time. I’d put the thought of the crash site out of my mind as best I could and just concentrated on the job at hand. I felt I didn’t want to fail any part of the operation. I had a strong desire to succeed and be as good as any of the others. I felt my age was a big factor in all this as the others were all that little bit older and experienced.
Tension grew during this phase as some voiced their concerns that we shouldn’t be there. We didn’t have the necessary training and background to deal with the conditions. In short, they were voicing their apprehensions. I had similar thoughts but found it unsettling to hear them voiced aloud.
On a lighter note, while waiting to go on the ice, the personnel at McMurdo and Scott Base had their annual Scott Hut race. This involved a race of two laps around McMurdo Base, running out onto Scott Point past Captain Scott’s Hut and back to the top of the road on the other side of the base which was half way to New Zealand’s Scott Base. I think the total distance was about 5 km.
Police were invited to enter a number of teams. We didn’t do too bad considering the temperature was about -7 degrees. After a short time running my lungs hurt badly from sucking in the cold air. By the time the race was over I was breathing through my balaclava to try and warm the air. It was much harder than I thought but it at least help pass time before we were required to go to the crash site.
The crash site
I can’t really remember what I felt when I walked to the helicopter on the way to the crash site. I was in the first helicopter taking the first police party. With me were Inspector Mitchell and Sergeant Greg Gilpin who had been appointed on site co-coordinator. I can remember enjoying the view from the helicopter and
getting my camera out and taking a few pictures as we neared the crash site. We flew over and around it a few times. It all looked so big yet you couldn’t really see any detail.
Inspector Mitchell, Constable Leighton & Sgt Gilpin leave for the crash site, 8.30am 3 Dec 1979. Constable Leighton facing the camera. © 1979 Stuart Leighton
When we approached the site there was nowhere for us to land as the landing pad hadn’t been built. We came in very slowly, hovered above the ground and then had to jump out. I was the first one out and it was quite a hop before we reached firm ground.
At that stage my duties were as briefed. The camp site was still quite small with only a few tents erected. I can remember thinking the camp site was very close to the wreckage.
I then got my first opportunity to have a look around the wreckage. I walked the whole length and width with Inspector Mitchell and Sergeant Gilpin.
One of the mountaineers was with us, taking photographs to send back to headquarters in Wellington. I can remember feeling quite stunned and stood back from the other two. They had to get me to come closer to them while the photos were taken. I can’t recall what the first body looked like but it’s fair to say I felt quite upset. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
This is the first photo I took of the crash site as we were approaching the scene for the first time. © 1979 Stuart Leighton
My senses were overloaded. There was the sight of all the bodies and the wreckage of an Air New Zealand plane. This was accompanied by an overpowering smell of kerosene. I just need to get a whiff of it now and I’m instantly back on the mountain side.
I’d been preparing myself mentally for it, but no matter how much I tried I couldn’t help feeling like being physically sick when I stood in the middle of the wreckage and saw what it was really like. I thought, “How the hell are we going to deal with this?” I realised nothing could have prepared us for this devastation.
Shortly after the walk around of the site Inspector Mitchell told me I would now be required to take my place on one of the DVI teams. One of the mountaineers would take over my original role at the site. I actually felt quite apprehensive but pleased with this change. I would be carrying my fair share of the load with everyone else.
At this point we returned to the camp site. Inspector Mitchell departed and I was directed to my tent where I put my bag and sleeping bag. None of the others had arrived due to the weather. It was about this time we realised there would be no more flights into the crash site for the foreseeable future as the weather had deteriorated.
I found sleep very difficult. Shortly after I got inside the tent a storm hit. I have never experienced any thing like it in my life. The tent was, after all, sitting on the side of an active volcano. The temperature was at least -40 degrees with the wind chill factor. We were being hit with very strong winds which felt like they could blow the tent away.
From the information at our induction, these storms could last for up to a couple of weeks. I knew all our food supplies hadn’t arrived and when the weather was like this no flights could get in. Indeed, it could be fine at the crash site but the weather at McMurdo could be bad and the helicopters might not be able to take off. Either way it meant we would be stranded.
My thoughts at that time were on survival. I kept thinking, “What if?” “What if we get stranded here and run out of food?” It was no game. We were in a real survival situation.
Having those thoughts in the tent during the storm was perhaps the lowest part of the operation for me. Here I was on the side of Mt. Erebus which in the Antarctic. I’m in the middle of a storm buffeting the tent very strongly which could potentially last for weeks and there was a plane load of bodies just a stone’s throw away. I thought, “What the hell are we are doing here?” All I wanted to do was go home. I also learned after this to make sure I put my boots into my sleeping bag as they had frozen solid. It took considerable time and effort to get them to a point I could wear them again.
After the storm abated I helped one of the mountaineers level off sites so more tents could be erected. I also helped one of them build the snow toilet. This involved heaping snow into a big pile bags and then compacting it. You then hollow out the middle by removing the bags and carve it into the shape you want. Very simple but the end result was a functional but very cold toilet when you had to sit on it!
Shortly after, some of the other teams arrived. The majority decided to get some sleep, but I couldn’t. I had to do something. I don’t know why. I just had to. As it was my first real experience in the snow I decided I’d build a wall using snow bricks - similar to how an Eskimo would build an igloo. I kept myself busy doing this for awhile but eventually the noise I was making started to annoy some of the others. My boots made a crunching noise every time I walked. The tension levels were high and I was told in no uncertain terms to get into my tent and stop disturbing everyone. I took the hint.