Joining the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) Squad

I joined the New Zealand Police in January 1975 as a 17-year-old Police Cadet. I graduated 19 months later and was posted to the Lower Hutt Police Station.

One day in late 1978, my sergeant read out a report at fall-in asking for any volunteers to join a newly-developed Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) Squad.

They were looking for a sergeant and a constable based in the Hutt. The rationale behind the squad, as I understood it, was to be prepared for a major disaster like an earthquake in Wellington. They wanted a core of trained personnel in teams of two to be ready to respond.

“Why not?” I thought. If an earthquake hits Wellington I’m going to be involved anyway, I might as well be trained. So up went my hand.

In March 1979 I was at the Police College in Trentham on the very first DVI training course. The course was developed by Chief Inspector Ian Mills and Inspector Robert (Bob) Mitchell. I was by far the youngest member.

The purpose of the course was to train us in most up-to-date DVI techniques. The combined wisdom and experience of the course members also helped refine the techniques for the NZ environment.

At the time, only two other police agencies in the world had trained DVI squads, the FBI in the United States and the New South Wales Police in Australia.


The day of the crash

On the day of the crash I was with the other Wellington based DVI teams at Police National Headquarters. The purpose of the visit to HQ was to have a look at the amended DVI procedures. They had been adapted after feedback from the recent course at the College, and as a result of feedback from a recent DC-10 crash in Chicago. There would have been about 12 people at the meeting.

At the end of the meeting, about lunch time, I returned to the Lower Hutt Police Station with my sergeant and a very experienced senior constable.

As we were driving back towards the Hutt at about 1.00pm and near the Petone rail bridge the senior constable said. “You know, I have been in the police for over 25 years and we have never had to use these procedures, and we never will”. I later worked out it was about this time the aircraft actually crashed.

Because of its irony, the memory is burned into my mind. I often think about it. 

After duty that day I had a date with my girlfriend (now my wife). I remember riding my motorbike to her house, as we had a date to go to the local pictures. At tea time her brother, who worked for Telecom, phoned up. He said Telecom was monitoring radio waves and had learned an Air New Zealand DC-10 was overdue on a flight to Antarctica.

I can remember saying “Oh god, if it’s crashed they will probably use me on the body recovery. I might have to use my new skills and the new police procedures to recover the bodies.” I never really thought it would come true. At that stage it wasn’t public knowledge and there was still hope it was OK.

We got back to her parents at about 10.30pm and, of course, it was all over the TV. The plane was still overdue and, in fact, was down as the fuel reserves were used up. I can remember feeling very nervous and a bit upset as I remembered my previous comments as well as the comments made by the senior constable that afternoon. 

I returned home to my flat which I shared with my younger brother and another police officer who was working night shift that night. I can remember being woken at about 1.30am by a phone call from my flat mate. He informed me the wreckage had been located in Antarctica and headquarters in Wellington had rung the station wanting my home phone number. It was obvious I was at least being considered to be sent to the ice. The police operation to recover and identify the bodies has been called "Operation Overdue".

I felt very uneasy and found it difficult to get to sleep. I didn’t really think I would actually go. [I thought that way right up to the time the plane taking us to the ice physically left Christchurch].

Apprehension at this point was mixed with a certain amount of excitement. The details were still unknown and I guess one of the reasons I didn’t sleep very well was that I was waiting for the phone call placing me on standby.


The day of departure

I was beginning to think I wouldn’t get the call up. When I wasn’t called that night I actually felt disappointed. The call, when it did come, was short and to the point. I was told wreckage had been located and I was being placed on standby. I was to pack clothing suitable to go to Antarctica.

At that point I didn’t know what to think. What do you pack to take to Antarctica? I didn’t have much bush clothing and I’d never been in snow before. Early the next morning my brother rang around and borrowed some clothing for me. I also rang home to advise my parents I was on standby. My dad was pretty good about it, or so he seemed, but my mother was upset. I did my best to reassure them both but there wasn’t much they could do about it.

At that time my thoughts about the ice and crash site - which was on the side of a mountain - were of wind and snow blowing about, and that we would be climbing rock faces, tied together with rope recovering bodies. This picture was built up by my imagination based on my general lack of knowledge and by listening to the radio and hearing ‘experts’ speculating.

As I’d never been in snow and ice before, I was worried about not having the mountaineering skills to climb the mountain - as I thought we’d have to. Yet I felt important for being placed on standby. All through this, I doubted I’d be selected.

The rest of the morning was spent packing my clothes and waiting around listening to the radio and watching TV. Of course, 100% of the content was Erebus related. As time went by and I didn’t hear any more I thought, “That’s it, we won’t be going". The operation might be off.

At about midday the call came confirming I was going. I was told I had to be at Wellington airport for a departure within the hour and I’d be picked up in 15 minutes.

I only had time to phone by brother at work and my parents. I remember my dad answering the phone. As soon as he heard my voice he said, “You’re going aren’t you?” I simply replied, “Yes, tell mum. I can’t wait, I have to go.” I also reassured him they wouldn’t place us in any danger and I would contact him as soon as I could. I didn’t have any more time. Things were happening so fast and my ride was due to arrive any minute.

I was driven to the airport and met the rest of the guys who were going down. I knew most of the police personnel from Wellington, but there were police officers from Auckland and I didn’t know any of them. They were all search & rescue trained and knew nothing of DVI. We were all quite apprehensive about what lay ahead.

At this point we knew accommodation was a problem on the ice, and some of us would be left behind. I felt sure I’d be one of the ones remaining at home.

Not withstanding that, we flew to Christchurch to the Antarctic Division of the DSIR to be fitted out in the required clothing. Two other police officers with alpine search and rescue experience also joined us there. That brought the total number of police personnel to 11. The decision was made about who would be left behind. No police were left behind, but some mountaineers were.

Before we knew it, we were on an RNZAF C-130 hercules headed for the ice. The flight was scheduled to take 8 hours and we departed Christchurch at about 5.00pm.

The flight was different to any I’d taken before. The plane was full of cargo pellets and equipment. We had to find a place to sit at the front on webbing seats that ran along the side of the plane. It was cold and very noisy and we had to put ear plugs in. Conversation was difficult.

The flight over the Antarctic was really quite beautiful. It was also strange taking off in the evening to then fly into daylight.


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.

This is the first photo I took of the crash site as we were approaching the scene for the first time. © 1979 Stuart Leighton

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.

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.


Body recovery

After the others arrived we had sufficient staff to start our first period of body recovery. The site had already been surveyed into 30m by 30m grids.

We were assigned a grid by the site coordinator, Sergeant Gilpin. It was our job to remain in that grid and process every piece of human remains we found, no matter how long it took.

Simply put, our role was to locate the bodies, allocate and tag them with a temporary identification number, photograph and bag them.  Each team consisted of four people. Two police, one photographer and one mountaineer. My team (team two) comprised Constable Bruce Thompson who was in charge; US Navy Photographer Thomas E McCabe Jr; and US Navy mountaineer Brian Vorderstrasse. 

It was my job to fill in the required international Disaster Victim forms and prepare the required photo plates and tags. I can remember feeling quite lucky that my job would mean I wouldn’t be required to do much handling of the bodies as I’d be busy recording the details on a form. That thought didn’t last very long. We were all required to physically recover the bodies.

I didn’t really like handling the bodies. I never have. But it’s always been part of a police officer’s job, so I just got on with it and made sure I did my fair share. It was a very strange feeling dealing with the first bodies.

Like anything new we took our time. It took about half an hour to process each body. By the end of the operation we were processing the bodies in half that time. At the end of the operation my team had recovered 94 bodies or part bodies.

We took a number of breaks throughout this first work period and just kept on going back and doing more. It must be remembered there’s continuous daylight in the Antarctic at that time of year. After we’d been working for a 16 hour period, teams three and four arrived. They hadn’t arrived earlier because of transport and weather difficulties but got underway soon after landing.

After working the 16 hour period I’d had enough and needed to stop. Thankfully, we did and flew back to McMurdo in the helicopters which had brought the other two teams in. As far as I was concerned, it couldn’t have come any sooner. I was ready for a break. It was getting harder and harder to motivate myself after each of the breaks. After processing bodies for about two hours I really needed a break. To start with, the time between breaks seemed alright, but by the end of the first period the work time got shorter and shorter. Not only were we processing the bodies, we were also carrying them to the side of the wreckage. It was very hard work. 

After we arrived back at McMurdo we slept. I don’t have any memories of bad thoughts and I had no trouble sleeping. I guess we were all physically exhausted but also on a high as we knew we could do the job.

At McMurdo we had the chance to phone home. That was great. I phoned my parents to let them know I was alright and that we could do the job. We then had a good meal and prepared to return to the mountain.

Inspector Mitchell then dropped a bomb shell. He said consideration was being made not to return us to the mountain. We would stay at McMurdo and wait for fresh teams to come from New Zealand and we would then return home. This was being done for the right reasons but we all took it badly. Our morale was very high and we wanted to finish the job. We wanted to return and were determined to do so.

In the end we did return to the mountain. The second group had made as much progress as we had. It was anticipated the job would be finished well before any relief from New Zealand would arrive, and this turned out to be the case.

Looking back, I personally think it was a mistake sending me back. It wouldn’t happen today. In saying this, however, I imply no criticism of anyone. We were very determined to return.  I firmly believe most of the psychological damage to me occurred after we went back. My ability to cope with the stress was considerably reduced through over exposure to the visual trauma and physical conditions I had experienced … only I wouldn’t admit it. I took any suggestion to pull us out as a direct insult, implying we couldn’t do the job when we knew we could. We ‘owned’ the job and the bodies.

This phenomenon is actually quite common and expected in recovery workers. These days, staff are managed very strictly and know ahead of time they will be removed and rotated with other workers and it is no reflection on their ability or dedication.

On our return it was decided to work 12 hour shifts and rotate with teams three and four. We worked 12 hours on and 12 hours off until the recovery was finished.

Working this second period was the worst for me as I became very tired. We were working in the middle of the wreckage where we were doing heavy lifting. I know my hand writing was getting worse and I could hardly read it myself. I didn’t think it was going to end but it finally did. I can’t remember much about that stage. I guess we put our minds in neutral and just got on with the job. None of us was immune from the ever-present kerosene stench. No one could avoid getting the grimy, greasy mess from the wreckage on our hands and clothes. None of us was protected from the sight of death. It was sheer hell at times.

At the end of the final recovery stage of the operation we had quite a large snow storm. The helicopters couldn’t get onto the site. The temperature was the coldest I had experienced on the ice and we again became trapped.

During the recovery I can remember seeing the bodies of the Captain and First Officer lying in the snow. I recognised who they both were. I couldn’t blot that out of my mind. They were two human beings with names known to me. That made it very difficult.

I found Captain Collins ring binder diary which I read. It contained what appeared to me to be handwritten briefing notes so I handed it to Sergeant Gilpin. It was later produced empty at the enquiry. It has never been adequately explained to me how this happened.

After we dealt with the bodies we did a property search. We looked for things such as passports, watches and any other documents that could lead to the identification of an individual.

We started at the bottom of the crash site and spread out in a line. While walking up through the wreckage I almost fell through thin ice into one of the many crevasses which were pock marked all through the site. I also found this period quite traumatic as I found myself reading peoples diaries. This had the effect of bringing back to me that it was human beings who had been killed. Some of the entries will remain with me for the rest of my life. One was headed up “Antarctica 1979” and the page was blank. Another was half written, describing the trip so far and how beautiful the Antarctic was. The last words in the diary were “Gee, it’s great to be alive”. I felt very sad when I read these diaries. It had the effect of humanising the tragedy. That was the last thing I wanted. I just had to swallow hard, try to forget it and carry on.

When the recovery was finally over I didn’t feel like mixing with all the others. I became a bit withdrawn and returned to the sanctuary of my tent. I spent a lot of time in the tent alone. In fact, I read a complete book while I was there to get away from things. I can still remember dreaming about food, especially fish and chips. That was the food I missed the most and the first thing I ate when I returned home.

I can remember others outside the tent near the main ‘admin’ area playing around, letting off steam but I couldn’t find it in myself to go outside and join in. I did later of course once I had recharged my batteries, but still felt very tired. I think everyone would have had their moments of reflection.

Other times I would wander off by myself and sit on the side of the mountain and look out over the water. These would be very reflective times and I would think about all the people who had been killed and their families. I’d look out into Lewis Bay in the direction the aircraft flew in from and would try and imagine what it looked like as it flew into the mountain… what it would look like as it disintegrated up the slopes of Mount Erebus and what the people would have felt. It was hard to come up with any answers and those thoughts were not always happy ones.

Other times sitting by myself I would just stare in wonder at the beauty of the place and how far it was from civilisation. It was hard to reconcile this beauty with what had happened.

The snowstorm after the recovery lasted 48 hours. When it cleared it was a crisp day and very cold. It was the coldest day I was to experience. For the first time I felt I couldn’t carry on. I had to get off the mountain. If there was more work to be done I would have had to say no. I had been taken to the limits of my endurance. I felt I had hit the ‘wall’ that people talk about.

After we flew back to McMurdo, all I wanted to do was sit in a shower for a couple of hours to get warm and clean, but that was impossible. Because of a fresh water shortage at McMurdo all we got was a two minute shower in the hospital. But it was great. We had worn the same clothes from start to finish.

While back at McMurdo all of the police team travelled to Scott Base where we each spent some time with the carpenter who was making a memorial cross to be erected on the crash site. We all contributed a little to assist him in his task, most by helping him sanding it. It felt good to be involved in this process because of what the cross symbolized and I felt I was leaving a bit of myself behind in the symbolism.

After a couple of days at McMurdo assisting with exhibits, winding down and socialising at a number of functions we returned to New Zealand. It was commonly felt we would receive recognition for what we had achieved. In the end we had to wait 27 years for any meaningful official recognition in the awarding of the New Zealand Special Service (Erebus) medal. The lack of any meaningful acknowledgement or recognition at the time was a very bitter pill to swallow. The official recognition, when it did happen, lifted a major weight from my shoulders. I will be forever grateful to the powers that be for making it happen.

We were only paid the standard away from home allowance by the police and denied payment of the remote search and rescue allowance - Antarctica did not fit the criteria. In the end, the police relented and paid it for the time we were on the mountain but not while we were on the base. We did however have to pay back US$100 which was given to us on arrival at McMurdo as they only accepted US currency. I had used a lot of mine to buy food which I consumed on the mountain to supplement the rations which were flown in when flights permitted.

Once back in New Zealand we had a battery of medical tests and a psychological debrief and we were all back at work within seven days expected to function as if nothing happened.

Approximately 12 months later, Air New Zealand had a limited number of free seats available to Police personnel involved in Operation Overdue on its service to Singapore using their new Boeing 747 aircraft. I was lucky enough to be one of the officers selected. It was a great gesture and I enjoyed the trip which was arranged at very short notice. I did feel a little guilty though when I later realised that not everyone who went to the ice was invited to go.


Some final thoughts

One of the consequences of carrying out the body recovery is I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of the families who lost loved ones. I feel very humbled in their presence because I have come to truly realise just how important it was that we did what we did.

On one occasion eighteen years after the crash, I was invited to be present at the funeral of the sister of one of the passengers who was killed on the mountain. The family felt comforted with the thought that there was a link with the deceased sister present at the funeral as the sisters had been so close and that presence was acknowledged during the service.

Around the 25th anniversary of the crash, Archives New Zealand displayed an exhibition around the recovery phase on the Ice of Operation Overdue. I attended a special preview along with other police staff who went to the ice along with family members of those killed. It became apparent to some family members who we were because they approached us. They expressed to us their gratitude for what we had done and we were able to answer their many questions. One family member however had the opposite view and told us how angry she was with us because we had not found her father. The pain for her was still very raw. It was not the first time in my police career that I have bourn the brunt of anger from distraught families. I can assure every one however that we recovered all the bodies it was humanly possible to recover with out the aid of heavy lifting equipment.

At the Medal ceremony at Parliament on the 27th anniversary, I had the opportunity to meet a very special family. The daughter of one of those killed made herself known. She was a young girl at the time her father was killed. As a result of the meeting Inspector Gilpin and I met her immediate family as well as some extended family. We were able to show photos of the crash site and explain what the conditions were like as well a dispelling some of the misconceptions that people have when they don't have sufficient information. We worked through all their many questions and issues they had about the scene and recovery. It was an emotional time for all involved.

A common question to me from people I have spoken to was whether any of the passengers or crew survived the impact. I have advised them that it is my very firm belief based on my observations that all died on impact and no one suffered.

I can only speak for myself, but I was given inadequate counseling and support on my return. Eighteen years later it all came to a head and I finally did receive that counseling and support from a very skilled and dedicated Police Psychologist.

On one recent occasion I had to suppress a smile when I spoke to a fellow police officer who had returned from the Boxing Day tsunami body recovery in Asia when he was lamenting the fact they had been given far too much counseling. If only!!!

The memory of my experiences will be with me forever and are just below the surface. There are many trigger points that bring those experiences back. They are as close as a whiff of aviation fuel. There are a lot more trigger points I could describe and I could tell a lot more about what I saw and experienced on that mountain, but frankly they are best left there.

Like many an old soldier who has known combat, I have an overwhelming need to return to the scene so I can make sense of what I experienced and make peace with myself. Until I do, I will never fully be at peace.

I am very proud of what I did on the mountain. I’m still a Police Officer after 34 years and enjoy my job.

To this day, 30 years since returning from Antarctica, I have never been back in the snow… strange that.


Inspector Stuart Leighton

NZ Police