New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has given a ‘whole-hearted and wide-reaching’ apology to the families of those killed in the Mount Erebus volcano disaster forty years ago.
On November 28, 1979, Air New Zealand flight 901 crashed into the side of the Antarctic mountain, killing all 257 on board, including 200 Kiwis and one Australian.
The anniversary of the worst aviation incident in the country’s history – and greatest peacetime loss of life – has drawn much attention in New Zealand.
There have been calls for a memorial and the re-airing of grievances thrown up by two official and conflicting reports conducted in the aftermath of the crash.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has apologised to the families of those killed in the Mount Erebus volcano plane crash
Previous governments failed to table those inquiries in parliament until 20 years after the crash.
On Thursday, Ms Ardern gathered with victims’ families at Government House in Auckland to deliver the apology, saying the government’s botched response ‘was wrong. It caused trauma on top of grief. And persecution on top of pain’.
‘I have read many accounts from family members. Letters telling stories of that day, of the weeks that followed, of the trauma that arises any time that Erebus is mentioned,’ she said.
‘All I know is that after 40 years, setting down grief will only be made harder, if we don’t acknowledge past wrongs.
‘After 40 years, on behalf of today’s government, the time has come to apologise for the actions of an airline then in full state ownership; which ultimately caused the loss of the aircraft and the loss of those you loved.
‘This apology is whole-hearted and wide-reaching. We will never know your grief but I know the time has come to say I am sorry.’
The wreckage of an Air New Zealand DC-10 lies on the side of Mount Erebus in the Antarctic, Nov. 30, 1979
At the same time as the memorial service in Auckland, staff based at New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica also read a message from Ardern and held a moment’s silence.
New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association boss Captain Andrew Ridling said the apology was ‘game changer’.
‘We have waited a very long time to see that put right. Our thoughts are now with the families of the crew and every passenger who was on board the aircraft that day,’ he told Stuff.
‘It’s impossible to underestimate the effect of just a few words.’
‘For New Zealanders, the word Erebus is not just a mountain on a cold distant continent. It is now a by-word for a dark time we hope we will never experience again,’ he said.
An Air New Zealand-operated McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30, similar to the one involved in the plane crash at Mount Erebus
Queen Elizabeth expressed her ‘deepest sympathies’ in a statement from Buckingham Palace.
‘Please convey my deepest sympathies to the families and friends of all those who lost their lives as a result of the Erebus Accident, together with everyone gathered today at Government House Auckland in commemoration of the Fortieth Anniversary of this terrible incident,’ the statement said.
‘I send my prayers and warmest wishes to all concerned as you remember and reflect on one of the greatest civil tragedies in New Zealand’s history.’
The crash was the worst peacetime disaster New Zealand’s history and caused a ripple around the country as victims and authorities looked for someone to blame.
The wreckage of the Air New Zealand DC-10 was spread across the Arctic
WHAT WAS THE MOUNT EREBUS DISASTER?
The Erebus disaster happened on November 28, 1979, when a sightseeing plane from Auckland flew to Antarctica and crashed into the slopes of Mount Erebus.
All 237 passengers and 20 crew on board were killed.
A search mission confirmed the deaths.
There is debate over who or what is to blame over the crash.
The accident came just two years after Air New Zealand began operating scenic flights over Antarctica.
Pilot, Capt Jim Collins, brought the plane down to 2,000ft in thick clouds so passengers on the DC 10 could get a better view of the Arctic.
The flight was the height of luxury with the entire cabin first class with a menu to match that included a Champagne breakfast.
The weather was poor with thick cloud coverage meaning it was hard to tell what they were looking at as they as they orbited across the ice and snow.
Capt Collins must have assumed he was on the same flight path which he had used before for the 11-hour non-stop round trip from Auckland which in today’s money would be about $923.
An iceberg lies in the Ross Sea with Mount Erebus in the background near McMurdo Station
He unknowingly circled 3,794m volcano Mount Erebus twice on descent, narrowly missing hitting the mountain as he attempted to avoid gathering clouds.
Capt Collins could be heard on the black box recording doubting what he was seeing from the cockpit as the plane dropped to 2000 feet and then 1500 feet as impact neared.
‘Actually, those conditions don’t look very good at all – do they?’ he told his crew.
‘We’re 26 miles north, we’ll have to climb out of this,’ he said when he realised they were on the wrong course.
But as he attempted to turn the plane away from Erebus the DC10 came to a crashing halt that would reverberate around the country.
Authorities struggled to determine if the crash was Air New Zealand’s fault or pilot error.
Theories included that the pilots were briefed of a flight path which was different to the one which was being followed by the plane’s computer.
Previously they had flown over McMurdo Sound but on the day of the crash they were flying over Ross Island and Erebus.
Fuselage of the DC-10 that crashed in 1979 into Mount Erebus, Antarctica
Authorities also considered if a ‘whiteout’ – which is when light between the snow and clouds overhead give an illusion of clear visibility – caused the crash.
Air New Zealand was slammed for initially putting the blame on the pilots but a Royal Commission would later lay the blame at the feet of the carrier.
The carrier was criticised for regularly operating flights at low altitudes to give passengers a better view of the Arctic.
They airline was also slammed by the judge leading the inquiry for attempting to cover up the crash with an ‘an orchestrated litany of lies’.
Air New Zealand appealed the findings and won leaving heartbroken families still without answers.
Chairman Dame Therese Walsh apologised on Thursday for the way families were treated.
‘I apologise on behalf of an airline which 40 years ago failed in its duty of care to its passengers and staff.
‘Better care should have been taken of you.’
‘On a high mountain, those who were loved were lost. Our memories of those who were lost can guide us.’