Only two visitors were allowed on the site at any one time which made keeping and eye on them much easier in smaller numbers. They were only allowed to stay for a maximum of 12 hours. The flight that took them back to Scott Base would bring in another two visitors. Some of the visitors included representatives from the aircraft maker and the engine manufacturer - both of these representatives were American and very knowledgeable in their respective fields. I learnt much from them.
The most important person I assisted was the on-site Air Inspector. He was very thorough in his job – almost too thorough – as he decided that after the storm some of the important documents may have been blown off the site and he wanted to go and look for them.
Of all the activities on the site, this new idea was one of the most dangerous because he wanted to go out to uncharted territory full of unseen, unopened crevasses. I roped him up for glacier travel and off we went. Having never been in a crevassed environment before, where the snow was as hard as ice and the surface as smooth as a dinner plate, it was a steep learning curve. I soon became aware of the two significant differences in the surface texture of the snow – one texture covered a crevasse; the other was solid. Once having mastered the differences we headed out onto the glacier proper in search of these elusive documents. Due to the size of some of the crevasses we had to make huge detours to get round the ends of them before proceeding further.
Titanium ice-axe given to Ray Goldring by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation for assisting in the recovery.
However, with 24 hour daylight we had plenty of time and after a couple of hours moving cautiously around we found nothing significant. It was a somewhat relieved inspector and climber who arrived back without incident.
All the times I moved over the crash site with the visitors I soon became aware of the location of the bodies. They were less-than-pleasant to be near and I avoided these areas as the visitors passed them by.
A wooden sculpture made by Ray Goldring for the people who died at Erebus. The overall shape is of Mt Erebus, the aircraft tail is the high feature, the ball-bearing is one given to me by the GE engineer as we traversed the site, the 'cup' holding the ball represents the Erebus crater.
Several crevasses had opened up along the path of the wreckage - the edges of these had been red-flagged as danger areas to keep clear of. They seemed to down interminably as in most cases we could not see the bottoms. It was decided we should go into the crevasses to search for any bodies that may have fallen into them during the crash. To do this required abseiling in. After setting up suitable anchors I abseiled down until it was so dark I could not see any further. We did not have any torches on the site (why would you with 24 hours daylight?) so we were unable to see what was beyond the dark abyss.
During the visit of the Douglas (aircraft makers) and GE (the engine makers) engineers, we went right down to the initial impact area. Before us was an almost perfect imprint of the aircraft carved in the snow, and right at the very first impact site of the imprint lay the rear strobe-light cover. This engineer extrapolated an interesting hypothesis which, to this day, still makes sense and could have had a slightly different outcome had circumstances been ever so slightly different.
With all the visitors coming onto the site every 12 hours and myself being assigned to look after them, it wasn’t long before the hours of travelling up and down the site were turning into days with no sleep. Fortunately the team leader recognised my situation and ordered me, after about 72 hours, to get some sleep. About an hour later after a deep slumber I was up again and rearing to go and couldn’t get back to sleep.
During times of waiting for visitors and when anyone had a spare moment it was spent trying to keep the skuas off the site. We had devised a simple but effective way of scaring them off without having to run after them. Using the meal trays as ‘Frisbees’ we launched these over the site to scare them away. The skuas would go and park themselves off near the site only to return for a repeat performance about half an hour later.
After what seemed like just a few days on the site, the final body had been accounted for and was ready to be shipped out. During this waiting period I decided to go back into the cockpit area to recover any other computer parts I thought may be buried in the snow there. I was digging in the snow with the spade when suddenly an ankle appeared.
I alerted the police and a team was reactivated to process the find. She turned out to be one of the cabin staff who was recently married. The Air New Zealand pilot who was there with me at the time recognised her. A tear rolled down his cheek as she was placed carefully in the body-bag. I believe he was at her wedding.
With all the known bodies recovered we headed back to Base.
For me, life on the ice was to continue for another 6-8 weeks working with the marine scientists on the sea ice.
Upon arrival back in New Zealand, I was taken to a psychologist who asked a lot of questions about my reactions to the crash event and if I had any lasting effects of the recovery. I have at no stage have had any adverse effects from the experience. We put this down to a number of factors which some of the other recovery members did not share;
One – I was used to the cold and snow and had been down there for 6 weeks prior to the crash. Two – while in the Kaimanawas before the crash, I had been involved with one other plane crash recovery and a number of other body recoveries including a shot hunter.
Today I am still free of any emotional trauma associated with the crash, however every anniversary of the crash brings to the fore the memories and images of that event.
I will never be free of them – nor will the families be free of their loss. But as time passes and memories fade all that will remain will be the names and faces recorded for future generations to ponder.