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.
Only two visitors were allowed on the site at any one time which made keeping an 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.
Titanium ice-axe given to Ray Goldring by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation for assisting in the recovery.
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.
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.