Inspector Gilpin is one of the officers who led the body recovery operation on Mt Erebus in 1979. He is still a serving officer in his 45th year of policing. Other major disasters he worked on over the years included the sinking of the interisland ferry, Wahine, in Wellington Harbour (1968); the Sprott house fire, Wellington (1969); and the sinking of the Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov in the Malborough Sounds (1986).
On the 29th of November 1979, I was one of 11 police officers who flew by Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules C-130 to Antarctica following the crash of Air New Zealand Flight TE901 into the side of Mt Erebus the previous day. At the time I was a sergeant with 14 years police service and was stationed at Taranaki Street Police Station in central Wellington.
The crash site on Mt Erebus.
The police group comprised of Search and Rescue and Disaster Victim Identification Squad (DVI) trained officers. DVI is an internationally recognised system of body recovery and identification of victims of large-scale disasters. The squad was formed months prior to the Erebus disaster.
The Antarctic phase of 'Operation Overdue' was under the command of Inspector Robert Mitchell. There were four non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and six constables from various locations around New Zealand.
From the time of the formation of the squad we periodically trained in DVI procedures in preparation for deployment should such a disaster occur. Never did we imagine that, if we were ever required, it would be out of New Zealand in one of the coldest, most inhospitable and remote but beautiful regions of the world. Coincidentally on the 28th of November, the day of the DC-10 disaster, a revision day was held for the DVI squad at Police National Headquarters, Wellington. I remember an officer remarking during this that he doubted whether we would ever be deployed.
Following this, I worked a late shift and became aware that flight TE901 was overdue. It occurred to me that the DVI squad may be called upon, but thought if the aircraft had gone down in Antarctica, the location and environment may rule that out.
Like all of New Zealand that evening, I was stunned. I listened to media updates and could not sleep. At around 3am the next morning, I was phoned at home and informed that the aircraft had been located on the slopes of Mt Erebus, there appeared to be no survivors and that I was on standby to go.
I arrived at work early that morning and was told the DVI squad would be deployed to Antarctica. I returned home to pack and was confronted with what clothing to take considering the environment we were heading to.
I said an emotional farewell to my wife and three young children and because of the type of job we were heading to, and the location, genuinely wondered whether I would see them again.
We flew to Christchurch and were outfitted with survival clothing and footwear at the DSIR Antarctic Division, Christchurch Airport. Along with New Zealand Mountain Face Rescue personnel who would look after our safety on the mountain, we left Christchurch Airport at 5.15pm on the 29th of November, arriving at Williams Field, McMurdo Sound in the early hours of the 30th of November.
The flight was one of contemplation on what lay ahead. The whole country was grieving and affected by the disaster, New Zealand’s worst in terms of loss of life, and we knew that the eyes of the country and to some extent, the world were on us.
We were well aware that families of the deceased would be wanting a speedy return of their loved ones.
I had no doubts, even taking into account the magnitude of the disaster and what we would face, that I could cope with the recovery of victims. Because of my experience from the type of work I had been involved in during my policing career to that stage, I was well prepared.
It was the unknown conditions we would encounter, affecting our safety on the crash site that caused some apprehension. Like some other officers in the DVI squad, I had never worked in snow or ice, let alone on the side of a mountain in the coldest region of the world.
But I was prepared and committed to fulfil my role and do what we had been trained to do as a squad, and put my faith in the Face Rescue personnel to look after our safety, and some prayer.
As we flew over the Antarctic continent the beauty was very evident, highlighting the reasons why sightseeing flights were so popular.
The DVI team returns from survival training. © 1979. Stuart Leighton.
As we neared Ross Island the Hercules pilot drew our attention to the DC-10 crash site. It appeared in the distance as a slight smudge in the snow on the northern slopes of Mt Erebus. This was a very poignant moment.
We were accommodated in the American Navy Base at McMurdo and were made extremely welcome with every convenience and facility extended to us.
The first few days were taken up with negotiations between police and senior personnel from Scott Base and McMurdo in preparation for the recovery operation.
The weather during this period prevented the deployment of the DVI teams to the crash site.
With other NCOs I attended briefings with Inspector Mitchell and McMurdo and Scott Base officials. These mainly concerned safety issues, conditions we would encounter and procedures on the crash site.
We underwent survival training with mountain safety personnel on Ross Island during this time. This was of immense value and from knowledge gained of site conditions from briefings, and with the training provided, most apprehension was dispelled.
On the 1st of December I was appointed site co-ordinator of the recovery teams by Inspector Mitchell and at 8.30am on Monday the 3rd of December, after the weather cleared, along with Inspector Mitchell and Constable Stuart Leighton, flew by helicopter to the crash site. Other DVI team members were to follow on later flights.
There were already Face Rescue personnel on the site and a small campsite had been established.
A helicopter landing pad had not been completed and we had to jump onto the crash site slope. We slid down the slope, after suitcases containing DVI equipment.
Sergeant Greg Gilpin, Constable Stuart Leighton, Inspector Robert (Bob) Mitchell inspecting the wreckage.
As the first police officers on the site, along with John Stanton of the Face Rescue team, we commenced an inspection of the crash site.
The scene that confronted us was one of utter destruction - both human and aircraft. Numerous bodies were visible scattered amongst the wreckage spread over the crash site. Nothing could really prepare anyone for such a large scale scene of devastation and death. It was difficult to comprehend that such a large aircraft could disintegrate into such small pieces.
It was evident to me from both the human and aircraft destruction that no one would have survived the impact.
The crash site was approximately 760m above sea level on a 14-degree slope, and extended 700m long by 120m wide. It had already been surveyed into 30m2 sections; these were marked out with black flags on bamboo stakes.
A crevasse. © 1979 Stuart Leighton
There were a number of crevasses towards the bottom of the site and a huge amount of twisted sharp jagged metal wreckage and potentially dangerous gas cylinders from the aircraft, over the entire crash site. Crevasses had been marked with red danger flags and any bodies visible at that stage indicated with green flags.
These dangers, along with numerous large holes throughout the crash site, plus hard ice and snow, would obviously present problems for us. After completing the site inspection I was confident that with care and safety guidance from the mountaineers we would manage these dangers. I was also confident from my observations that we would be able to complete our actual body handling role.
There was a heavy concentration of bodies in the sections towards the top of the crash site in the vicinity of a large piece of aircraft fuselage.
The Central Fuselage of the DC10. © 1979 Stuart Leighton
Many bodies were clearly visible and accessible. Others were buried by snow and ice and it was obvious that these would have to be dug out.
At the bottom of the crash site there was a perfect imprint of the underbelly and wings of the DC-10 in the snow. This indicated that the aircraft was pulling up at the time of impact and disintegrated as it travelled up the slope of the mountain throwing those on board out as it went.
The imprint of the DC10 Underbelly. © NZ Police.
Following the site inspection the weather deteriorated and Inspector Mitchell returned to McMurdo where he would then remain to co-ordinate the recovery operation.
We were soon to learn the dangers and suddenness of the changeable weather conditions. Without any real warning a severe storm blew up with gale force winds and snow. The temperature dropped with the wind chill factor to the vicinity of minus 40 degrees.
Constable Leighton and I sheltered in small tents at the campsite and I remember at one stage during this thinking, ‘How are we going to survive this?’ it was so severe.
After several hours the storm abated and, on emerging, our tents were virtually under snow. On inspecting the crash site again it had changed considerably. Bodies and wreckage, which were previously visible, were now covered with snow, and others not visible initially were now exposed.
We later experienced, short, violent sudden storms with swirling winds periodically sweeping across the crash site during the recovery operation, creating danger from flying jagged wreckage. It was necessary to move quickly and take shelter.
Whiteout conditions had prevented the transporting of the other DVI personnel to the crash site consequently delaying the commencement of the body recovery.
The helicopter landing pad under construction. © 1979 Unknown.
During this period we spent the time assisting in the building of the helicopter landing pad, and marked the location of bodies throughout the crash site. Humps covered with windblown snow indicated the position of buried bodies.
I drew a plan of the crash site grid. The 30m2 sections were numbered 1-23 in four rows, from the bottom to the top of the site. There were 92 sections. However, the grid later had to be expanded by four sections when bodies were located outside the surveyed grid. The plan was used to record the position and number of victims located in each grid section during the recovery operation. Each body recovery team would be assigned to a specific section to clear it of all victims. When complete, the section was marked off on the plan and the team assigned to the next section.
After a clearance in the weather late Monday evening, sufficient officers arrived to form two body recovery teams. Each consisted of two police officers and a United States Navy photographer from McMurdo Base. The teams were accompanied at all times by a Face Rescue team member for safety.
A United States Navy doctor was on the site initially to examine the victims and pronounce life extinct.
At approximately 2.00am, on Tuesday, 4th December, the body recovery operation commenced. Starting at the top section of the grid, working down the site, all bodies had to be chipped and dug out of the ice and snow. They were marked in position, photographed and all DVI details recorded before removal to the side of the crash site for later return by helicopter to McMurdo.
Because of weather delays we were determined to make progress with the body recovery and worked until 6.00pm on Tuesday evening. We knew that results were wanted and relatives of victims would be waiting.
During this 16-hour shift, 56 sections of the crash site were cleared. The weather again closed in, and although there was 24-hour daylight, visibility was restricted to a metre or two by thick mist and fog. With assistance however from Face Rescue personnel, this was negotiated safely.
Moving up and down the crash site with body recovery kits and equipment made for heavy and tiring work. Even though the temperature was constantly below freezing, the survival clothing provided was extremely effective.
A view from the bottom of the crash site. © 1979, Stuart Leighton
In spite of the conditions, all that was wanted after walking up the site was a cold drink. Ironically it was necessary to boil cans of orange juice as they were frozen solid.
This first day of the body recovery operation was of vital importance. Good progress was made and consequently morale was high. All involved were determined to continue and were of the opinion, given good weather, the recovery operation could be completed sooner than expected.
To achieve this, we needed to have all four DVI teams working on the site. The campsite needed to be expanded to accommodate all DVI and other personnel on the mountain at the same time.
The remaining two DVI teams, under the command of Sergeant Mark Penn, arrived on the mountain on Tuesday evening. After briefing Sergeant Penn I returned with the first two teams to McMurdo for an overnight break.
Inspector Mitchell was briefed on progress and the conditions. After a welcome hot shower and phone call home to our families from the only telephone at Scott Base, we were determined to return and complete our task.
The possibility of replacing body recovery personnel because of the stressful nature of the job was raised by Inspector Mitchell. This was not well received. All Officers had coped well and had been medically assessed. None indicated they wanted to be relieved of their duties; spirits were high. We knew that the job could be completed, and were determined to do so.
The issue of replacement officers was not pursued because of timing and logistical difficulties that the location presented.
When we returned to the crash site the next day, again good progress had been made by Sergeant Penn's teams. We decided that from then on we would work around the clock, my teams between 6.00pm and 6.00am and Sergeant Penn's teams from 6.00am to 6.00pm. This 24-hour coverage would result in the recovery operation being completed within the week.
We were also conscious that the ice runway at McMurdo would start breaking up from the 14th of December which would obviously prevent RNZAF aircraft, necessary to complete the operation, from using it.
During these shifts, progress was determined by the weather, the amount of digging or chipping required, and recovery of victims from dangerous locations such as under large, heavy pieces of wreckage and checking crevasses. Fatigue was a problem and it was necessary to take regular breaks to rest and get away from the traumatic task.
Sleeping was particularly difficult because of what we were dealing with, thoughts of family at home, freezing temperatures, continual daylight, the constant squawking of Skua gulls hovering over the crash site and, for me on a lighter note, the snoring of a representative of McDonnell-Douglas, makers of the DC-10, who I invited into my tent after I found him trying to sleep in the snow because of the shortage of accommodation.
We remained in the same clothing while on the mountain. The most difficult task, after sleeping, was trying to put mukluks (boots) back on which had frozen solid.
On Thursday evening the end of the body recovery operation was in sight. With the heavy concentration of victims in the centre sections near the large piece of fuselage, all four DVI teams worked together to complete the task. In the early hours of Friday morning, the recovery of victims from the site was complete.
Contact searches of the site were then completed to ensure that no human remains had been missed. A considerable amount of personal property and various forms of identification were recovered during these searches.
The weather deteriorated again following the completion of the body recovery. This was a trying time for everyone on the mountain. The weather delayed the completion of transportation of the remaining victims to McMurdo.
The weather was extremely miserable with whiteout conditions. It was particularly cold and snowed heavily over these days. The majority of this time was spent sheltering in our tents, sleeping and reflecting. Despite this there was a sense of relief; the harrowing and strenuously demanding body recovery had been completed safely in dangerous and hazardous conditions, and quicker than expected. Our thoughts had turned to returning to McMurdo and home.
The weather eventually cleared on Sunday morning which enabled completion of the transportation of the remaining crash victims to McMurdo for return to New Zealand. The police DVI squad members returned to McMurdo by helicopter throughout the morning while the Face Rescue personnel remained to dismantle the camp site.
Debriefings were held during this time at McMurdo, and before leaving a significant occasion was the construction of a cross by all who had been involved in the recovery operation in memory of those who died. This was later placed in a prominent position above the crash site.
We eventually arrived back in New Zealand in the early hours of the 12th of December, 14 days after having left.
The 'success', if this can be said in respect to such a tragic event, of the body recovery operation on Mt Erebus was due to the efforts of a small group of DVI trained police officers, assisted by mountain safety, US Navy and other support personnel both on the mountain and at McMurdo and Scott Bases, who all worked in co-operation together. There was a professional and sensitive approach to the body-handling role, and a positive attitude throughout on the crash site with a 'let's get it done’ attitude to the task. The body recovery completed by so few on Erebus really was an incredible effort under the circumstances.
Any signs of the effect on individuals of the harrowing body-handling experience were not evident at the time because we steeled ourselves to face the task we had been trained for. Despite the unpleasantness, spirits remained high and we were determined to recover all bodies located for return to New Zealand. Any that were not located would have been buried under the large piece of fuselage which could not be moved. In all, 348 bodies or part bodies were located and recovered. 214 were eventually identified.
Limited support and counselling was available on our return. This and the lack of official recognition until 27 years later (2007), of those who worked on the body-recovery and identification phases of 'Operation Overdue' was difficult to understand and accept, considering the magnitude and nature of the job. This has certainly changed today for police officers and others attending traumatic events. It was only later, and for some many years later, that the effects of the experience came to the fore. No one could be completely unaffected after involvement in such a challenging task. Although I didn’t believe it would at the time, it did to a certain extent change my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Erebus at some time, and things such as catching the smell of aviation fuel or diesel put me immediately back on the mountain.
I try not to dwell on the specific task we undertook but rather, like other New Zealanders I think of the overall sadness and tragedy of the disaster. My involvement however, has impacted greatly on my family over the years.
Something positive for me to come out of this tragic event, is the bond and friendship developed through meeting family of some of those who died.
What has really troubled me over the years though as a police officer, is the issue of pilot, Captain Jim Collins’, ring binder notebook which was located amongst the wreckage and handed to me on the site. It was intact and contained numerous pages of legible technical writing and figures that indicated they related to the flying of aircraft. We recognised that this could be of importance to any investigation into the crash, and I sealed and secured it in a bag before it was returned to McMurdo.
The ring binder was later produced in 1981 at the Commission of Inquiry into the disaster in an altered condition to how it was found, in that the pages were missing. It had earlier been returned to Mrs Collin's in this condition by an airline official. The reason why and how the pages came to be missing has never been satisfactorily explained or resolved.
G J Gilpin M.N.Z.M
Inspector, NZ Police