Back in New Zealand, a meeting was held at 9.15am on 29 November 1979 in Police Commissioner Walton’s office. The meeting set about deciding how the body identification and recovery process would be carried out. They decided that Brian Davies would be in control of police operations, and the police Search and Rescue Coordinator, Bob Mitchell, would be in charge of body retrieval in Antarctica. It was also decided to dispatch the newly formed police Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team and a professional mountain face rescue team (Hickson, 1980).

The DVI team had been recently created in response to lessons learned by the police commissioner at a conference in Australia. The conference had examined the Australian Granville rail disaster, and identified the need for countries to have trained professionals on hand to identify large groups of victims. They did not however, anticipate the DVI team’s expertise would be called upon so soon.

Within 20 hours of the accident Operation Overdue was well under way. Once on the scene it was immediately evident that no one had survived the impact, and the operation’s primary objectives became the gathering of evidence, and the recovery and identification of human remains.

The Recovery Team 'Campsite', near the crashsite, December 1979. © NZ Police

Even if the impact had been survivable, the passengers’ chances of prolonged post-crash survival would have been poor. In his accident report Ron Chippindale wrote: “The aircraft’s survival equipment had not been modified or supplemented to cater for survival in the cold land or cold sea environment of the Antarctic. No training had been given to the flight or cabin crew members on Antarctic survival techniques and no adaptation of the standard emergency briefing to the passengers was planned.” 

The Recovery Team loads the victims into an RNZAF Plane, 1979. © NZ Police

Operation Overdue began on 29 November 1979 and finished on 10 December 1979. At any time up to 25 people, assigned to teams, took 12-hour rotating shifts on duty. They rested in tents pitched on the side of Mt Erebus some 50 yards from the crash site. The work was long and hard, and, unknown to the recovery team at the time, would scar them forever. A study conducted on members of the recovery team by Taylor and Frazer in 1981 examined the “psychological effects of stress arising from body recovery and victim identification”. The study was undertaken with the support of the New Zealand police and other organisations whose staff had taken part in the recovery operation.

The remains of the victims were flown from Antarctica to Whenuapai Air Force Base aboard an RNZAF Hercules, and from there they were taken to an Auckland Medical School morgue for identification. The process took many weeks, but successfully identified 213 of the 257 victims. The 44 unidentified bodies were buried in 16 caskets during a joint ceremony at Waikumete Cemetery in West Auckland on 22 February 1980.

Although the team recovered as much as possible, the crash site is the final resting place for some of those on board flight TE901, and it is now classified as a tomb (Antarctic specially protected area no 156 Lewis Bay, Mount Erebus, Ross Island.).