Forty years ago an Air NZ sightseeing plane went missing in Antarctica. Cherie Howie looks back on that fateful flight.
The 8am news had just begun on the wee transistor tuned to Radio Lakeland.
Trish Gillies was feeding 7-month-old son Hendon Gillies jr his breakfast and a news report about Antarctica had caught her attention.
It was where her only brother, James Lewis, was that day flying as part of a crew of 20 looking after 237 excited passengers on an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight over the vast and untouched frontier at the bottom of the world.
In two weeks it'll be 40 years since Gillies sat in the kitchen of her Taupō home and listened to that news report. But, for Gillies, it could be yesterday.
"They were saying it was the 50th anniversary of the first flight over the South Pole [by United States aviator Richard Byrd] and I remember it going through my mind straightaway, 'Oh my god, I hope nothing happens to Jim's plane'."
She went on with her day, like any other "at home with the baby". But her mind kept going to "the plane".
"I wouldn't normally think about it. But I kept thinking about it all day."
About 5.30pm, the phone rang.
It was her father. He'd just spoken to Air New Zealand.
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"He said 'Trish' and then nothing came. He just couldn't get the words out. I immediately thought of the plane, I didn't think of my mother or anything like that. I thought of the plane, because I'd been thinking of the plane all day.
"And still he couldn't say anything. Then he said, 'The plane's lost'."
'OH, WE HAVEN'T HEARD FROM THE DC10 FOR A WHILE'
The plane was ZK-NZP, better known as a five-year-old DC10 which on November 28 1979 was carrying a full passenger load on a $329 ($1200 in 2019) return "cruise" over the icy wilderness more than 4000km to the south.
Instead, at 1.49pm (12.49pm in Antarctica, which in 1979 didn't recognise daylight saving) flight TE901 crashed into the northern slopes of the continent's second highest volcano, 3794m Mt Erebus, killing everyone on board.
If the early part of the day was an ordinary one for Trish Gillies and little Hendon jr, it was the same for the country.
It was a bog standard late spring day, with highs of 23C in Auckland and Christchurch, and 18.7C in Wellington.
School certificate exams were under way.
And Governor-General Sir Keith Holyoake joked to dignitaries at Auckland War Memorial Museum's 50th birthday that he hoped he'd be invited to the museum's centenary in 2029.
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As TE901 took off from Auckland Airport at 8.17am, Niwa records show the wind speed was a gentle 12km/h.
Climbing to 10,000m, the jet began its 11-hour return journey, expecting to arrive over the polar landscape in about five hours.
Hugh Logan was already there.
An expert in surviving extreme environments, the 26-year-old was spending the summer as a field assistant at Scott Base for the Government organisation which later became Antarctica New Zealand.
He was based at New Zealand's only Antarctic research station, but it wasn't unusual for Logan and colleagues Keith Woodford and Daryll Thomson to travel to even more remote outposts with field parties probing the continent's deepest secrets.
On November 28, 1979 the trio were at Vanda Station in the Dry Valleys, a three-hut camp named after a dog and 80km west of Scott Base.
The trip was a survival training exercise for a group of Americans. Instead, the group arrived at the station mid-afternoon to be told by leader Gary Lewis: "Oh, we haven't heard from the DC10 for a while".
"Gary was a very keen radio person and he'd spoken to [TE901] an hour and a half earlier. Of course, dear old little young naive Hugh said, 'Oh, maybe their radio's not working'.
"To which Gary said, 'Um, no. Modern jet aircrafts' radios don't stop working on their own'."
Soon after, authorities in Antarctica, concerned by the radio silence from TE901 since first officer Gregory Cassin's last contact at 12.45pm local time (1.45pm NZT), contacted Air New Zealand headquarters in Auckland and sent up search and rescue aircraft, according to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage's nzhistory.govt.nz website.
At the little outpost, Logan — stranded as the aircraft meant to be returning his group to Scott Base was diverted to look for the missing DC10 — heard it all.
"Everyone went onto the US operating channel. We were listening to the full build up, you know, 'Have you seen anything? Any news?' and later 'A C-130's been put up' and then later we heard a P-3 Orion had departed New Zealand, heading south.
"And then at a certain stage we heard them say, 'Well, they're [TE901] running low on fuel'. There was this slow realisation of, 'This is getting serious, the aircraft's down', but we had no idea where it was down."
Back in New Zealand, the alarming news was spreading.
At Wellington Golf Club in Lower Hutt, having taken part in a warm-up event for the following day's Air New Zealand-Shell Open Golf Championship, the airline's chief executive Morrie Davis was told at 4.45pm there was a "significant alert" regarding the flight.
He would soon board a special Boeing 737 flight back to Auckland, where most Kiwis were still going about their day on this most ordinary of Wednesdays, unaware of the tragedy unfolding 4400km away.
Among them was Brian Roberts, an Air New Zealand passenger service agent.
He returned home from a run about 6pm to discover his mother had written down multiple messages from workmates saying there was a problem with TE901.
Despite the heads up to a tragedy most Kiwis wouldn't hear about for more than three more hours, Roberts didn't rush to the phone.
"The messages said [authorities] had lost contact with the plane, but I wasn't concerned at that point. Everyone in those days lived in a little bit of a bubble that nothing like this could happen. People just didn't think Air New Zealand could have a crash."
He'd take a shower before calling back, he decided.
'I'D NEVER SEEN MY FATHER CRY'
In Taupō, Gillies had finished talking to her distraught father.
All the 24-year-old could think about was getting to the parents who had adopted both her and her brother as babies and given them "the most wonderful childhood".
"I just bundled my baby in the car and with my husband we went to the house. And we sat there and waited and waited and waited. I kept thinking, 'They could've landed in the sea, they could be ok'. You think of all these things of hoping, not even thinking for the life of me that they'd gone straight into a mountain.
"I was trying to keep things positive. My father, I'd never seen my father cry. I really struggled with that."
In the Auckland suburb of Te Atatu, Roberts was out of the shower and listening to a workmate tell him a senior colleague had said contact with TE901 had been lost.
"The public hadn't heard at that stage. We just talked about, 'Why haven't they made contact?' The thought of an aircraft flying into the side of a mountain, we didn't even think of that."
Afterwards, as he ate dinner with his parents, Roberts told his parents about Earl Beaumont, who showed up at Auckland Airport the week before and asked if he could change his November 28 Antarctic flight to November 21.
Roberts put the enthusiastic young Canadian on standby, but all Ice flight passengers — as they almost always did — showed up.
"The striking memory of the Antarctic flights was the tremendous buzz of anticipation. I can still feel it. We'd be 100m from the terminal and you could hear it.
"It's the only flights I ever experienced that, because everyone was going on a big adventure."
It was now just after 7pm, and TE901 was due to land in Christchurch, a brief stopover on its return journey to Auckland.
Waiting friends and family were initially told the flight sometimes arrived a little late.
But while nothing had been announced officially, concerns about DC10 were starting to spread. News of a possible problem with the flight may have been announced in radio bulletins at 7pm, according to nzhistory.govt.nz
The Rescue Co-ordination Centre and police, who started calling next of kin to tell them the flight was overdue, had also been told.
In Auckland, journalist Tony Potter took a call from the Auckland Star's golf writer, Brian Doherty, who'd been with Davis at the golf event in Wellington.
"[He said] at after rounds drinks Morrie was called away very urgently and told the flight hadn't reported in for hours and hours. Doherty said, 'I think that plane has probably gone down'."
Potter called a friend who was an Air New Zealand captain and had flown in Antarctica.
"He said, 'That's impossible, it's landed somewhere'. I said, 'Well, they haven't heard from it' and he said, 'Oh god, in that case it's out of bloody fuel'."
Potter's next conversation was a short one.
"I called the editor-in-chief, Ross Sayers, and Ross being a good journo said, 'Get straight out to the bloody airport'."
By 7.45pm, Potter, usually a senior feature writer at the Star, was at the airport, where the arrivals board listed TE901 as "flight delayed".
Potter watched as arriving friends and family were taken into a private room.
"I was with the Herald reporter, Susan Maxwell, and we just sat and waited for these people to come out."
'DO I KNOW ANYONE?'
He walked the halls of power, but Hugh Templeton, a Cabinet minister in the National Government of Sir Robert Muldoon, heard the news of TE901 the same way thousands of other Kiwis did — when TVNZ interrupted normal broadcasting at 8.30pm to say the flight was overdue.
The House was sitting and while he can't remember what was being debated, he can never forget the moment he walked into his office during a break and heard news of the unfolding disaster on TV.
"In those days you didn't have staff on duty in the evening so there was really no system whereby even ministers were informed. Whether the Prime Minister was informed [before the news was made public], I have no idea.
"It was a heart-deadening moment. We had a pretty close relationship with Air New Zealand. Later I found I knew some of the people on the plane. And I knew Morrie Davis.
"I was the associate finance minister and we as a Government were intimately involved with Air New Zealand ... on the buying of new planes, things like that."
Templeton, now 90, can't remember if he returned to the House, but was "pretty sure" he attended a Cabinet meeting the next day.
"The Prime Minister was deeply upset. I suspect he knew some of [the victims] — nearly all of us knew [mountaineer and in-flight commentator] Peter Mulgrew, for example.
"[Sir Robert] was certainly capable of showing emotion, but never in any way that suggested fear or concern. He expected life to be hard."
Others were also taking in the shocking news.
On a trip to inspect weather stations in Taranaki, Cameron Coutts, now a MetService meteorologist, was about to order a meal at the Hawera pub he and a colleague were staying at.
"The news was starting to trickle through. We were just sort of glued to the TV and radio. It was very sombre. We didn't want to eat, we hardly drank.
"And you wondered, 'Do I know anyone?'"
He did — family friend Nancy King was on board with her sister, Margaret Carr.
In South Auckland, Grahame Webb was driving for United Taxis when he heard the news on 1ZB.
As hopes dimmed with every report, passengers could talk of nothing else, he says.
"They were shattered. It's what everybody was talking about. It was the news of the decade."
Webb also discovered a connection with the flight, when a fellow taxi driver on duty that night confided his nephew was on TE901.
"He was hoping he was okay."
In the TVNZ studios in Auckland's Shortland St, broadcaster Philip Sherry heard "something was wrong" while chatting with a colleague between reading news bulletins.
He remembered the night of November 28, 1979 "with great sadness", particularly as he'd previously interviewed TE901 captain Jim Collins. But none of that could show on screen.
"It didn't matter what one felt oneself, you just get on with the job and read the news as it's presented to you ... in my day newsreaders were not in the business of emotion. The facts were presented, you read it. That was that."
THE NOTE UNDER THE DOOR
As Gillies and her parents, now joined by the local Anglican minister and with the phone "running hot", waited by the radio and TV those facts offered little comfort.
"[People were saying], 'What can we do?' Well, we didn't even know what to do."
At 9pm Air New Zealand confirmed the flight was overdue. Half an hour later it was revealed TE901's two hours of fuel reserves would've run out. And just before 10pm public affairs director Craig Saxon said the airline accepted the plane "must be down".
At Auckland Airport some families began leaving, a sight Potter's never forgotten.
"I've worked in Fleet St, I've worked in tabloids and I've done my share of death knocks, and Susan and I just watched those poor people walk past.
"We both felt this was no stage to go up and say, 'Excuse me, you've just lost your family, what do you feel like?'. God no, I couldn't do it."
Gillies doesn't specifically remember when the family realised all hope for her 26-year-old brother was lost. It was another step to be climbed: "You then move into the grieving stage".
Back in Te Atatu, Roberts, who had to be up for work at 5am the next day, still couldn't comprehend what he was hearing.
"I don't think I envisaged the aircraft had crashed and everyone was dead. It was just this false bubble again — 'The aircraft might be down but there might be some people injured, some might even be dead'.
"I never ever envisaged that everyone died within a millisecond of each other."
The 22-year-old fell asleep listening to the radio, missing the 1.15am announcement by Davis that search and rescue had spotted wreckage on Mt Erebus, with no sign of survivors.
Logan, still stranded at Vanda Station, heard the news directly as it was broadcast over the operating channel.
"Then Scott Base came on very soon afterwards and said, 'Get ready, because we'll be sending in a chopper to pick you up at some stage'. I walked outside. Vanda often had a lot of wind, but it was quite still. It was still daylight, but we were in shade. I was thinking, 'Oh, this isn't very good'.
"It was sort of like the outside world had imposed on you. Antarctica is quite a little world of its own. And it was like the outside world had reached in and shaken the place up a bit."
THE SAD JOURNEY OF THE FLYING CHOCOLATE BOX
Like the many in New Zealand holding vigil through the night by their TVs and radios, those nearest the tragedy were also running short on sleep.
Eventually flown to the US Antarctic research base McMurdo Station, Logan tried to sleep in the hour before his next flight.
"I remember it being bloody hot down in the bunk room, so I didn't sleep much."
Soon he, Woodford and Thomson would be stepping off the skid of an American Huey helicopter onto the northern slopes of Mt Erebus, and realising immediately there would be no miracles.
"It was blindingly obvious there were no survivors."
The trio spent two hours walking around the site noting hazards, ground conditions and initial observations regarding the crash.
As they returned to McMurdo to brief authorities, there was little time to dwell on the tragedy — its full impact wouldn't hit Logan until he overheard names being read out on radio the next day.
"It just went on and on and on and on. That's when the enormity of it hits you — they were reading the names of the people who were on the aircraft, and it took so long."
In Auckland, Roberts woke to discover a note pushed under his bedroom door.
Forty years on, its contents still bring him to tears.
"It was from my parents. It said the aircraft had been found and there appeared to be no survivors. It was just a cold shock."
A colleague arrived to pick him up. He was driving his brown Triumph 2000, jokingly nick-named The Flying Chocolate Box.
But it was the saddest of journeys in The Flying Chocolate Box that morning.
"[Our discussion] was just a lot of 'Why?'."
In the airport terminal the Christmas decorations were up and it was deathly silent, Roberts says.
"People were just standing there, with their baggage, in little huddles. We just knuckled down, there were lots of disrupts because we'd lost an aircraft. The [crashed] plane usually went to Brisbane the morning after [the Antarctica flight]."
Stopping later for breakfast, Roberts found himself looking at a DC10 parked at the gate TE901 had left from only 24 hours before.
"A couple of us went out and stood under this huge aircraft. I can still remember its registration ZK-NZM, it was the second DC10 Air New Zealand received.
"I put my hand on its nose wheel and just closed my eyes. A ground engineer came along and put his arm around my shoulder, we said a few words together, then it was back up stairs to handle the next departure."
* Erebus Flight 901: Litany of Lies? , a Herald podcast on New Zealand's deadliest aviation disaster, launches on Monday at nzherald.co.nz/erebus