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Old 21st Nov 2004, 09:58
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Erebus 25 years on


Erebus 25 years on
21 November 2004

It was the disaster that rocked a nation. Ruth Laugesen talks to three people whose lives were changed by the Erebus crash.

At 8.20am, a quarter of a century ago next Sunday, 237 passengers and 20 crew fastened their seatbelts for what was supposed to be a very special trip. Flight TE901's sightseeing joyride over Antarctica was due to take 11 hours.

The aircraft never returned.

In a small country, it seemed as if everyone knew, or had connections to, someone who had been on board the jet as it smashed into the side of Mt Erebus.

The crash was only the beginning of the anguish for those most closely bound up in this loss. The remains of 213 bodies were identified, but for the families of a further 44, the pain of loss was made more intense because the remains of their loved ones were never found.

The pain continued as New Zealanders tried to understand what had happened. On one side of what was to become a bitter national debate, air accident chief inspector Ron Chippindale ruled it was pilot error. He said the pilots were flying too low when they had not established where they were. On the other, Commission of Inquiry head Justice Peter Mahon blamed Air New Zealand for a last-minute change to the flight path that took the plane over towering Mt Erebus. It was a change of which the pilots were unaware. Mahon also levelled the charge of an attempted cover-up by the national airline.

Mahon's famous accusation, of "an orchestrated litany of lies", still reverberates down the years. Mahon was rebuked by superior courts, and prime minister Rob Muldoon refused to table the report, but many of the public came to Mahon's defence. Even now, the aviation industry remains sharply divided over the issue.

Erebus 25 years onNext Sunday, Sir Edmund Hillary, who was originally scheduled to be a commentator on that flight, will give a reading at a memorial service in Antarctica.

Here, three people discuss how their lives were changed forever by the Erebus disaster.

The widow

Anne Cassin's husband was Greg Cassin, co-pilot of the Erebus flight. After the crash, Cassin went on to gain her own commercial pilot's licence, becoming a top flight instructor whose lessons included aerobatics. Six years ago she was blinded by a stroke. Now 56 and living in Nelson, she still misses intensely the sensation of flying a plane. Her daughter Maria flies jumbo jets for Air New Zealand.

"I felt disbelief (when I heard), because I was just rung up by a staff member to say that the plane was missing. I just couldn't believe that somebody would do that. I thought it must have been a hoax.

"So I rang up the Air New Zealand office to find out if it really was true. Somebody came on the line to say 'yes, it does appear to be true'. It hadn't been heard from for several hours by then. I (held out hope) for days, because it was days before his body was found. I had this crazy notion that maybe he was in a snow cave somewhere, and still surviving. You sort of try and think up scenarios: maybe he didn't go on that flight for some reason. (It was) still very much hopeful, wishful thinking. I guess I didn't really allow myself to believe it until they rang to say they'd found the body.

"I immediately understood . . . just how many other families would be hurting as well. But you go into survival mode, and it's a sort of numb, horrible feeling. The children were four, nine and 12.

"It's quite unbelievable that it happened; when I look back I still feel quite astounded at what happened. But we just put it behind us. We just live for now, really. You can't live in the past. I've found that life, when these things happen, it makes you turn in another direction, and it's not all bad. You take on a new focus, and concentrate on that, and it gets you through.

"It's amazing how long it goes on for, 25 years later, and there's still talk about it. You realise it's never going to be behind you."

The photographer

Fred Freeman, now 74, was in the Air New Zealand boardroom the night chief executive Morrie Davis told the waiting reporters and photographers that all hope was gone for the missing flight. The Auckland Star photographer's image of the devastated chief executive that night was unforgettable.

"He was absolutely cut in half. He was dreadful. He didn't talk very long. He was gutted.

"I had got the call that night to go to the Air New Zealand building. We stayed there most of the night. The phones in the Air New Zealand office - they were going eyes out. They were getting calls from all around the world.

"Everybody realised this plane had gone with all these people on board, and it was a full plane. And the tension was . . . you could have cut the tension with a knife.

"(Davis) looked to me as though he might have had a few drinks, but that's only a personal thing. He was pretty cut up. Everybody was cut up at the time, because it looked as though there was going to be no show for anybody, and all those people on board.

"You can imagine how touchy it was, because nobody (from Air New Zealand) wanted to say anything. Nobody had any real true facts or figures, or anything, excepting that they had to accept the fact the plane had gone down. It had crashed, and that was it.

"And they couldn't get to it to get any survivors.

"I was shooting with the available light in the room, which wasn't much. So I had the camera on the table so I could hold it steady. He put his hands up to his face as much to say 'bugger off, get out of the place, I've had enough, I've got to find out what's going on'.

"There was just the hush. And then it all closed off and they said, 'righto that's it'. He was cut to pieces. Personally, myself, I felt for the guy at the time. He was going through agony."

The searcher

Hugh Logan, now 51, was working at New Zealand's Scott Base when the DC10 went down. Twenty hours later, he was among the first three to arrive at the crash site. Logan went on to take part in the grim task of recovery of human remains. For two weeks, up to 60 people toiled, gathering what they could from the ice. Logan is now director-general of the Department of Conservation.

"As we came around the corner (in the helicopter) it was just a black smear . . . up the side of the hill. From a distance it looked quite small. But as you got closer to it, you think, no, this is much bigger.

"First of all we had to determine whether anyone had in fact survived. It was very clear to us, more than abundantly clear, that there were absolutely no survivors of that plane, and no one had in fact survived the initial impact at all.

"I'd been involved in alpine search and rescue in Mt Cook in the 1970s, so I'd had to deal with injured and dead people in mountain situations, but not on that scale. The main thing all of us felt was the complete devastation that was there.

"People had different ways and methods of coping with it. I think that many people simply made sure they depersonalised things to the extent they could. Some people distanced themselves from it and some people stepped away from it; they actually were involved and said, 'hang on I'm not sure I like this that much'. And they didn't continue on.

"But you dealt with it as a job to be done. It's how I dealt with it.

"For people back in New Zealand, particularly family and people associated with the crash, for them it was much worse because they couldn't readily identify with what they were having to deal with. Whereas for those at the crash site, it was real."

Erebus Remembered: Flight TE901, a commemorative exhibition at National Archives, Wellington, is on display until May 30 next year.


Sun "New Zealand Herald"

What the PM knew about Erebus

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon\'s backroom advisers worked to debunk the embarrassingly critical Erebus crash report even before it was released.

The revelations to the Herald on Sunday come on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Antarctic crash that claimed 257 lives when an Air New Zealand DC10 flew into the slopes of Mt Erebus, on November 28, 1979.

The one-man commission, the late Justice Peter Mahon, was slammed by Muldoon who refused to table his 1981 report which accused Air New Zealand witnesses of participating in an "orchestrated litany of lies" on the witness stand.

An accident report had blamed pilot error - far less damaging to the Government than systems failure at the state-owned airline.

Justice Mahon found a navigation computer had been incorrectly changed so the plane was programmed to fly into the mountain, and that Air New Zealand witnesses had lied to cover up other mistakes that pointed blame at the carrier.

Muldoon responded with venom - the findings were potentially fatal to the Government-owned carrier - while Air New Zealand prepared an appeal against the lying accusations in court.

Nearly 23 years later, Muldoon\'s key advisers reveal officials were getting advice that would counter the report, months before it was released.

The prime ministerial advisory group had been leaked indications of where the Mahon inquiry was going, and hired aviation experts and even met Air New Zealand in a bid to explore their concerns.

"The Prime Minister\'s department in those days tended to work a bit in advance of events," said Muldoon\'s press secretary of the time, Brian Lockstone.

"It was at that point that it was recognised that perhaps there was going to be a report that might have been strong on emotion and perhaps some fixed ideas that might actually miss the greater point."

Pressure and conflicting opinions came from all sides, including multi-national companies who built the plane, he said.

The advisory group received a draft of the report reviewed by two pilots with polar and whiteout flying experience, working independently of each other.

"They came up with some very interesting conclusions that basically said that poor old Peter Mahon had got it wrong," he said.

Former head of the department Gerald Hensley said the advisers felt there were problems with Mahon\'s logic and told Muldoon who said they should have a closer look.

The consulted pilots argued that only one person flew the aircraft "and that\'s the pilot," he said.

"From all that we did have some differences with Justice Mahon\'s argument that the plane, in his phrase I think, \'was programmed to fly into the mountain from the moment it left [New Zealand]\'."

Justice Mahon\'s widow Margarita was horrified Air New Zealand were in on the advisory group meetings.

"Muldoon wanted to make Air New Zealand into the seventh wonder of the world. Nothing, nothing was going to damage it. That was my understanding. They had no right to be there. No one should have had any knowledge of what was in that report at all."


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