Horowhenua man Greg Gilpin was one of a small team tasked with retrieving bodies from a plane crash that remains New Zealand's biggest peacetime tragedy. In the 40 years since, there's not a day that he hasn't thought about the Mount Erebus disaster. Paul Williams reports.
Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica on November 28, 1979, killing all 257 people onboard. A memorial service will be held at Government house in Auckland today.
Among the family and friends of those who died will be members of a small team of New Zealand police that risked their lives in the dangerous recovery operation in the weeks that followed. It was called Operation Overdue.
Retired inspector Greg Gilpin, now aged 73, as a sergeant led a team of 10 police officers from New Zealand on the mountain tasked with returning the crash victims to their loved ones. Operation commander, based at the McMurdo base, was Inspector Bob Mitchell.
Gilpin said meeting with members of those families is very emotional.
"You do feel a connection towards them ... they are appreciative, and that really does mean a lot," he said.
The dangerous recovery operation was hugely important at the time for those that were grieving. As were any details of the disaster. Just seeing a map of the crash site and knowing where their loved ones were found was important to them, he said.
"A lot of these families had no idea and were given no information at the time," he said.
"We felt like we had a responsibility to those families to get the job done and we were determined to do the job properly."
In the wake of a recent train crash in Australia at that time, a Disaster Victim Identification Squad (DVI) was set up by New Zealand Police to recover and identify victims of large scale disasters, should it ever be needed.
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The DVI squad was formed only months prior to the Erebus tragedy, and had held a training day the very same day the plane crashed. Gilpin said they could never have imagined they would be needed so soon.
The phone rang at 3am the next day. He packed, said an emotional farewell to his wife and children. Like most others in the DVI team, he had no mountaineering experience, and genuinely wondered if he would see them again.
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On arriving at the Mount Erebus site, they were overwhelmed by the devastation and the reality of the task. But he said they just got down to work. The officers were split into four teams, each team joined by a US Navy photographer and an experienced mountaineer.
"There was a real New Zealand attitude of 'let's get it done'," he said.
The 700m x 120m crash site had been surveyed and marked out in 30m x 30m sections of the grid. Green flags indicated a body, while red flags warned of dangers such as a crevasse or a hole.
"There were holes and crevasses all over the site," he said.
There were numerous dangers, but after walking the site and a complete site inspection Gilpin was confident they could do the job safely.
Some bodies were visible and accessible, while other were buried in snow and ice or were down crevasses, or under large pieces of wreckage that had to be moved.
In freezing conditions, they were regularly battered by storms and winds that would send metal parts of the wreckage flying through the air. They would sit out the storms in their tents.
Changeable weather conditions meant severe gale force storms could blow in without warning, carrying a wind chill factor of minus 40 degrees at times.
They never changed clothes. Some ate meals still wearing the very gloves they worked in. Some never took their boots off as they would freeze solid.
"Once you took your boots off it was extremely hard to get them back on again," he said.
They were haunted by birds that circled the crash site day and night, as the continent was bathed in 24-hour daylight at that time of year.
It was hard to sleep anyway, but Gilpin said the screeching of the Skua gulls preying on the bodies had a real effect on them. During the recovery bodies were re-covered with snow to prevent the birds getting to them.
Although now retired from the police and living in Manakau, north of Otaki, the tragedy has never left him.
Smells bring back memories. The smell of diesel on a ferry trip reminds him of Erebus, or at an airport with the smell of aviation fuel puts him straight back on the mountain.
"It does put you straight back there," he said.
Gilpin said he and the rest of the recovery team received scant assistance in dealing with the pyscological effects of the operation. They were given a couple of sessions with a psychologist, a week off work, and left to get on with their lives and their jobs.
Times have changed. These days there is a huge focus on wellbeing in the workplace, but as were the times then, nobody talked about it that much afterwards.
"We weren't treated well, but that was the attitude of the day. Things are completely different now, for the better," he said.
The true nature of that horrendous task could only be understood by those that were there. In freezing and dangerous conditions on the side of a sloping mountain in the coldest part of the planet, they risked their lives every day.
"You couldn't prepare you for what you saw. It was a scene of utter destruction. It was overwhelming to see so many fellow New Zealanders and others, Japanese, Americans, Australians ... it was hard ..."
"When you experience something like that it never leaves you, that's for sure. At some time during the day, every day, I think about it at some stage," he said.
While some bodies were found entire, the majority were not. Every body part was treated as a separate body. Nothing could be assumed. Pathologists in Auckland had the job of correctly identifying those onboard, with the assistance of 120 assigned police.
It would take 27 years for members of Operation Overdue to get the recognition they deserved for their efforts, when in 2007 they were awarded the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus).
It recognised "the service of those New Zealanders, and citizens of the United States of America and other countries, who were involved with the extremely difficult and very unpleasant, hazardous, and extreme circumstances associated with the body recovery, crash investigation and victim identification phases of Operation Overdue."
Gilpin said it meant so much to them all.
But there was one part of the Erebus tragedy that will never sit well with him.
From the snow a ring binder notebook belonging to Captain Jim Collins was recovered and given to Gilpin that contained the coordinates for the flight, which later were proven to be incorrect.
The notebook was returned to McMurdo base intact for crash investigators to use in later investigations into the crash.
But when the notebook was produced as evidence in the official inquiry, all the pages of the book had been removed.
"The ring binder issue has been a big part of my life and continues to concern me. Why would anyone remove pages from a captain's diary of an aircraft that had just crashed. It obviously should not have been interfered with it, no matter what it contained," he said.
The podcast and video series Erebus Flight 901: Litany of Lies? runs on nzherald.co.nz on weekdays from Monday, November 18 to Thursday, November 28, the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster. Each day we'll highlight a key moment from the podcast transcript of that episode. You can listen to all the episodes in the NZ On Air-funded series in the iHeart player below or catch up on all our coverage of the disaster at nzherald.co.nz/erebus