38 years ago today 257 people died on Antarctica’s Mt Erebus when an Air New Zealand DC-10, Flight TE901, crashed on a scenic flight. We had two family friends on the plane that day. These were the kinds of close family friends that children growing up in the 1960s called Aunty and Uncle, even though we weren’t related. We weekended together as familes, and as children we played and fought together.
My “uncle” and his daughter were flying that day, and it was her 21st birthday present.
To surprise the travellers, my “aunt”, her son, and two young university friends of her daughter drove up to Auckland as a surpise welcome for the intrepid travellers. It was early evening when they phoned us from a pay phone at the airport to say that the flight had been delayed and there was no ETA yet. Could they come and stay with us until there was some firm news? At this stage there was puzzlement, and some degree of mild concern
And so began a night long vigil. The levels of concern grew steadily though the evening and into the night, and as more news evolved bit by bit, a wreckage was finally found and the truth started to kick in. They were not coming home. None of them were.
The following day there were the formalities to begin to deal with. For me, this involved being driven out to the airport lodge by my dad, where our friends had spent the night before they boarded the flight. I had a spare key for their car, and my job was to check all their gear was in it, and drive it back to our house. As I opened the boot of the car, the one thing that struck me profoundly was that the wash cloth they had used the previous morning was still damp. 24 hours, and nothing would be the same again.
In the days and weeks that followed there was the search, the recovery of what could be recovered, and the services to farewell all those lost.
Now 38 years on I think about the lives that were lost that day, and the tragedy that defined so many lives, and particularly my aunt’s life. She never recovered from this tragedy. She never re-married, and to this day, now in her 90s, she mourns her husband and daughter every day. And yet she has been apart from them both far longer than she was ever with them.
Every anniversary I think of them and of all the others that we all, as New Zealanders, were separated from by only the thinnest of margins. There were stories of chance, and there were also some happy endings. Sir Edmund Hillary’s widow June lost her first husband, Peter Mulgrew, in the crash, and was able to find happiness in years to come with our own Sir Ed, who had also tragically lost his first wife in an air crash in Nepal a few years earlier.
There is a memorial wall at Waikumete Cemetery to name and commemorate those who were never identified on the mountain. In the case of our friends, she was brought home, but he was never identified. So his name is alone on the memorial wall, and this saddens all of us.
Today our prime minister has announced a national memorial to be built in time for the 40th anniversary. I hope that my aunt will still be alive to see this come to fruition. Then she may rest easy, knowing that at least in name, her husband and daughter are reunited.