THE EREBUS TRAGEDY – A STORY TOLD
During the summer of 79/80, I was employed by the NZ Antarctic Research Programme (NZARP) as a Field Safety Leader to help keep some of the scientific party’s safe while they ventured out into the Antarctic wilderness.
Ray Goldring drops a piece of wreckage into one of the crevasses to test its depth.
I was previously employed by the NZ Forest Service (NZFS) as a Ranger and Second-in-Charge of the Kaimanawa Forest Park. From the mid 70s I worked as a volunteer outdoor instructor with the NZ Mountain Safety Council in alpine skills, bushcraft, abseiling skills and firearm safety.
My experience in the snow and alpine environments along with good general park-work skills helped NZARP to accept me as a Field Leader responsible for the safety of the scientific parties I was involved with in the field. Six weeks before the DC-10 crash, leaving a tearful Maree and two young children behind, I departed Christchurch on a lumbering C130 Hercules bound for the southern continent. Some eight laborious hours later we touched down amongst the glaring white wilderness of that lonely icy world.
Immediately I was drawn to its wonders – the extreme cold (for me), the purity of the landscape, the clarity of the air, the tenacity of the wildlife, the ever-present dangers of the environment and the need to be extremely vigilant when venturing outside. I was at home – here is where I had trained myself to be.
I soon learnt to assimilate into the life-style of the Antarctic visitor (for that’s what we all are) and took every opportunity to absorb as much information I could on how to live down there and to cope with all its extremes.
The scientific programmes selected for me to assist with were, apart from some Japanese scientists who were undertaking research inland to the Dry Valleys – these were all based on the sea ice and involved marine-based studies.
My wife’s mother died a week before the crash and I was sent home for a week’s compassionate leave - I was to return to the ice on the Thursday the following week. On the Wednesday the DC-10 was declared missing and later found to have crashed.
I departed as scheduled on the Thursday morning bound for Christchurch, then down to the ice the next day. This flight on a Starlifter had some of the alpine members who were to be involved in the recovery.
Upon arrival back on the ice we commenced preparations to visit the crash site and begin the operation. Unfortunately there were some minor delays due to the recovering of the black box and a storm which prevented helicopter landings on the site.
The Scott’s Hut race was run on the Saturday which helped relieve the tension of what we were about to discover on the crash site.
The next day, our party travelled to the crash site and was met by the horrendous sight before us. We each locked into our private thoughts of what was to come. Each body had been flagged (green) along with the perimeter of the site (black) and the crevasse edges (red), in case a storm were to cover the bodies with snow.
The helicopter departed and we were amidst the silence that only a few days before had been shattered by the horrific crescendo of a disintegrating aircraft carrying the innocent souls aboard to their unplanned destiny.
Before I went onto the actual crash area itself, the bogie I had to fight with and overcome was the enormity of the disaster - how could so many people die in such a minute moment of time? More than anything else - the terrible scenes laid out before me on that gentle slope of pure snow, clearly enlightened me as to the tremendous fragility of humankind. The distance between life and death is but a blink of the eye, a flutter of a heart! Throughout the rest of my time there, I had this underlying sadness of the lost potential and the utter waste of it all.
One of my first tasks was to build a snow-dome toilet to help protect naked bums from the intense wind-chill swirling around the nether regions.
Kerosene fuel permeated every thing, boots, clothes, skin and food, and it was decided early on that one person had to stay off the site and do all the cooking, so the food no longer tasted like kerosene. Hand washing was difficult with only melted snow for water.
I was given the task by the site team leader of acting as a safety person for all the visitors who were due to come onto the site. My tasks were to help prevent the visitors from falling into the crevasses that had opened up during the crash, and to recover any item that could identify a person on the flight. I was also tasked to recover any computer components that may help in the investigation as to the cause of the crash. During these searches I recovered one of Capt Collin’s personal documents and in the absence of the Air Inspector, gave it to the visitor on the site – an Air NZ pilot.