The Mt Erebus accident with 257 fatalities - 237 passengers and 20 crew - is New Zealand’s worst peacetime disaster. At the time it was the world’s fourth worst aviation accident, and is still the worst aviation accident in the Southern Hemisphere. New Zealand as a nation continues to be profoundly affected by the tragedy and it is a pastoral and public oversight that nothing has yet been done to establish a suitable national memorial to the Mt. Erebus accident victims, especially for the many families involved. Other more recent disasters have their own national memorials, including for the Pike River accident and Christchurch earthquake victims.
National memorial spokesperson, aviation chaplain and historian, Rev. Dr Richard Waugh QSM, of Auckland, reports that the 40th anniversary on 28 November 2019, will be very suitable time for the opening of a new national memorial. Dr Waugh comments, “There are several smaller memorials, mainly in Auckland, but there is no significant public place where all 257 names are displayed, and where people can gather to remember and have special times of contemplation, prayer and reflection. Such a place is needed.”
An advisory group is working with Dr Waugh. Consultations have been taking place with families of those who died, the Government (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), Air New Zealand, and a variety of other organisations. Dr Waugh says the advisory group is very aware that planning and fundraising needs to get underway as soon as possible, if the national memorial is to be ready for the 40th anniversary in November 2019.
Dr Waugh comments that neither he nor advisory group members have any intention to refer to or discuss cause(s) of the accident, and that no location for the national memorial or funding plan has been decided while initial consultations have been taking place.
Many older New Zealanders remember where they were on the evening of 28th November 1979 when the news came through that an Air New Zealand DC-10 was missing on a scenic flight in Antarctica. Memories come to mind of the early speculative news reports, updates about the fuel running out, the grim waiting, and then the first chilling images; the black smudge on the uphill slope, the impact imprint of the wide body jet on the ice, the burnt-out wreckage in millions of pieces, the heavy undercarriage assembly tossed to the side, and the dirtied Koru still visible on the smashed tail assembly.
The tragic accident on Mt. Erebus generated an air accident report, a Royal Commission of Inquiry, countless newspapers stories and articles, many books, and television documentaries and dramas. The shock from the loss of a modern airliner with 257 people aboard continues to reverberate in New Zealand all these years later. It is time, suggests Dr Waugh, to put the controversy of the accident to one side and focus on a national memorial to those who died.
At present there is no major public memorial to the Erebus accident where all 257 names are listed together. There are a number of smaller memorials; a commemorative cross and sculpture at Scott Base Antarctica; designation of the crash site as an Antarctica special protected area; a memorial and garden of remembrance at Auckland’s Waikumete Cemetery for the 16 passengers who were unidentified and the 28 passengers who were never found; a nearby cherry tree and plaque for the 24 Japanese passengers; a small memorial to the crew members at Auckland International Airport; a memorial window at St Stephens Anglican Church in Whangaparoa, a memorial bench at the Lower Hutt Rose Garden; a memorial window and book of remembrance at Auckland’s St Matthew-in-the-City church; and a sculpture at Air New Zealand Auckland headquarters.
Considering the magnitude of the Mt. Erebus air disaster, with 257 fatalities, the number of close family is in the thousands and with grandchildren and wider family and friends, so many New Zealanders and others from overseas would have direct links to the accident. The number of passengers from overseas were: Australia (2), Canada (2), France (1), Japan (24), Switzerland (2), United Kingdom (5) and the United States (22).
The New Zealand Airline Pilots Association maintains a comprehensive website about the Mt. Erebus air disaster, including a ‘Roll of Remembrance’ listing all the crew and passengers and with some public comments by relatives.
Dr Waugh continues, “Many spouses, siblings, and children of the victims are aging and several have discussed with me about a proper national memorial to the accident, in time for the 40th anniversary of the accident. While some people have suggested we wait until the 50th anniversary in 2029, my view is that waiting longer would be uncaring and insensitive to so many older close relatives - who may not be around by then!”
“Our advisory group is in touch with many surviving spouses and siblings, who are now in their late 70s or 80s, and who would very much like to have a national memorial to the air accident. Such a memorial will be a holy set-apart place where families can gather on special remembering occasions.”
As well as extensive research and publishing on the history of New Zealand airlines (see www.nzairlinereseach.co.nz), Dr Waugh, in his capacity as an aviation chaplain, has had considerable experience with air accident memorials and anniversary services. From 1994 to 2011 he was involved with aviation historians Graeme McConnell of Nelson and Peter Layne of Tauranga, and other volunteers, in planning permanent plaque memorials for the nine airliner accidents that occurred around New Zealand during the pioneering years from the 1930s to the 1960s. This work involved contacting the families of the 73 people who died in the accidents, fundraising for the plaques, and organising the memorial services. The largest gatherings were for the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Kaimai Range NAC DC-3 accident (which occurred on 3 July 1963 with the loss of 23 people - 3 crew and 20 passengers). The Kaimai accident is still the worst aviation accident on New Zealand soil.
Dr Waugh says, “At such services the families and community really came together in a special way. My colleagues and I were pleased to organise memorials for those who died in the nine pioneering airliner accidents. These 73 New Zealanders were part of the human cost of the development of safe airlines in New Zealand and each person deserved to have their name on a public memorial. My experience with the Kaimai Crash anniversaries was that for the 40th anniversary service and dedication of the national memorial in 2003, many close family members were still around to gather and participate. By the time of the 50th anniversary in 2013 numbers had thinned considerably. It tells me that for the Mt. Erebus accident it is imperative something proper is done for the 40th anniversary and we should not wait any longer.”