Erebus: Life after picking up the pieces

By Sarah Lang

We all know about the alleged cover-up over the Erebus plane crash, but who knew about the men who went to Antarctica to retrieve the 257 bodies and how dangerous and difficult their mission was? I didn't, until I watched Erebus: Operation Overdue. It scored four awards at this year's Documentary Edge Film Festival and tonight it opens TV One's Sunday Theatre: The Ford New Zealand Season.

The sub-title "Operation Overdue" comes from the name of the recovery operation, but this is also a long-overdue tribute to the 11 policemen who risked their lives, and sanity, to bring others' loved ones home. Returning traumatised, they had no proper debrief or support. Not until 2007 were they recognised with medals.

Now their story is finally being told by Charlotte Purdy, a producer/director of factual TV whose uncle was the ill-fated flight's engineer.

The increasingly popular approach of part-doco, part-drama works well here. Recent interviews with four of the policemen and an air-accident investigator are spliced with archival film, photographs, and dramatised scenes set in Auckland and Antarctica, with lookalike actors playing the men's younger selves.

Today the site would be a crime scene, but back then the policemen were only there to recover bodies, with airline staff on site, too. One policeman tells of finding the captain's ring-binder and handing it into Air NZ. Later, he saw on TV that its pages - suspected to contain incorrect coordinates given to the captain - had disappeared. Meanwhile, air-accident investigator Peter Rhodes reveals troubling details of what went on at Air NZ's head office. On the film's website (operationoverdue.co.nz), Purdy tells of various roadblocks to talking to Air NZ staff from 1979, off-camera. But, onscreen, she keeps the spotlight on the untold story: the men's ordeal.

The untried Disaster Victim Identification team had never used their DVI procedures before, and none had experience on the snow. One man told his colleagues that they were street cops, not mountaineers, with no business being there. Another wondered if he'd see his kids again.

Their fears were more than justified. Think jumping out of a helicopter into a white void, in wind that sent jagged metal flying, and abseiling down narrow crevasses.

But their main concern was coping with what they saw in the wreckage. The bodies were mangled and mutilated, decapitated and disintegrated. Their quarters were wind-battered tents beside the wreckage, with 24/7 daylight and the constant squawks of hungry gulls keeping them awake.

The dramatised scenes recreate the crash site so well it's almost indistinguishable from the photos. But potentially disturbing material is handled sensitively. We see a severed hand, a face under the ice, a woman's perfectly preserved body, but nothing grotesque. Rather, the camera zooms in on the men's expressions so we imagine what they're seeing.

Telling details abound in interviews, too, with one policeman saying every time he sees a woman's hand he's taken back to Erebus.

Although physically and mentally shattered, the men retrieved every body within two weeks.

Many were traumatised. "It slowly killed me from the inside," says Constable Stuart Leighton. People, he said, didn't comprehend what they went through.

This important and absorbing watch helps us comprehend - and says a long-overdue thank you.

Erebus: Operation Overdue screens tonight, 8.30pm, TV One.

- Herald on Sunday

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