Remembering Police at Erebus

Remembering Police at Erebus

Howard Broad, Police Commissioner

Thirty years after an Air New Zealand plane went missing over Antarctica, I clearly remember hearing first news of the disaster.
 
I was a detective in Dunedin, working a late shift when I heard it announced on TV. It was a real moment of shock horror. 
 
I knew how big a DC10 was, how many people would be on board and that if it had gone down in such a hostile environment, it would be a catastrophe.
 
The following day, wreckage was seen on the slopes of Mount Erebus. For the 237 passengers and 20 crew, we feared the worst. Among the passengers was a 26-year old constable who had won his ticket in a raffle.
 
Only eight months earlier, NZ Police had formed its first Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) unit. Forty police officers attended a two-day training course on the recovery and identification of bodies in a disaster situation. 
 
At the time, I felt envious of the people selected for the course - it meant training, and a new experience. In hindsight, I see how difficult the job was, especially in the early stages when the procedures were new and the personal challenges of the work were not well understood.
 
Eleven police officers were sent to Antarctica. Ten worked on the mountain to recover the victims; one coordinated the operation at McMurdo base.
 
Those on the mountain worked in twelve hour shifts around the clock, enduring temperatures of minus 40 degrees. They were hammered by storms that went on for days.
 
Back in New Zealand, other DVI team members went to Auckland and prepared to work with pathologists, dentists, police photographers, fingerprint experts and mortuary technicians on identifying the bodies and body parts.
 
It was a harrowing process that took its toll on many involved. But the systems developed as a result have stood us in good stead ever since. In international disaster events such as the Victoria bush fires and the Boxing Day Tsunami, NZ police stand out for their competence in planning and executing such operations.
 
On the 30th anniversary of this tragedy, we acknowledge those of our staff who represented NZ Police so well and felt the repercussions throughout their lives.
 
LINKS:
Personal accounts from police officers involved in the recovery operation - www.erebus.co.nz
 
NZ Special Service Medal (Erebus)

Sergeant Greg Gilpin, Inspector Bob Mitchell and Constable
Stuart Leighton among the wreckage on Mt Erebus.