Mt. Erebus, Earth's southernmost volcano, on Ross Island, Antarctica:
The mountain was named after a ship in the British Royal Navy, the HMS Erebus. The HMS Erebus was named after an ancient Greek "personification of darkness and shadow, which filled in all the corners and crannies of the world," or maybe the lower half of the underworld. The ship went to the Antarctic in 1840 under Captain James Ross. The island the mountain sits on is named after the captain, and the mountains are named after his ships, Erebus and Terror. After studying the Ross Ice Shelf, magnetism, oceanography, and Antarctic ornithology, the two ships went to the opposite pole in 1845 under Captain Sir John Franklin. That expedition didn't end so well
. The ships became moored in the ice, were abandoned, and later boarded by Inuits looking for copper. Their wrecks haven't been found, but people are still searching for them.
Man Proposes, God DisposesAir New Zealand Flight 901
, by Edwin Landseer (1864)
, a sightseeing flight that crashed on the slopes of Mt. Erebus on November 28, 1979, killing all 257:
Edmund Hillary, Mr. Everest and a New Zealand native, was scheduled to act as a guide on the flight. He had to cancel to do a speaking tour in the U.S., and his good friend Peter Mulgrew filled in for him. It was the second time he narrowly missed dying in a plane crash - in 1960 he was supposed to be on TWA Flight 266
, but was late. His first wife and daughter did not share his luck, as they died in a plane crash in Kathmandu in 1975. In 1989, Edmund Hillary and Peter's widow June, both having lost their spouses to plane crashes, got married.
Edmund Hillary with an airplane he used to explore Antarctica
The Air New Zealand flight crew were used to flying along the open water of McMurdo Sound, so they had dropped to 2,000 feet (technically, flights were not supposed to descend below 6,000 feet, but the Air New Zealand sightseeing flights violated this rule regularly to provide better views). They did not realize that the coordinates had been adjusted earlier that morning to take them over Mt. Erebus - the briefing the pilots attended earlier in the month included copies of the old flight plan, and amazingly they were never directly told that the plan had changed. The Mt. Erebus path would have been protested as too dangerous by U.S. Air Traffic Control, and Justice Mahon argued later there had been a deliberate attempt by Air New Zealand to cover it up - rather than latitude and longitude, the computer program simply displayed "McMurdo" as the final destination. Mt. Erebus is 12,448 feet high.
On top of the new coordinates/flight path, the flight experienced a "sector whiteout" when the automated computer system took the airplane toward Mt. Erebus. The ground was completely covered with snow; the overcast clouds were entirely white. Through optical illusion, the horizon disappeared and the mountain became invisible. The plane disintegrated upon impact.
The recovery effort was named Operation Overdue. Workers camped on the mountain beside the wreckage, struggling on 12 hour shifts to recover all human remains - from under the fuselage, under the wings. The bodies were covered in "black human grease" from burns and the workers became covered in this grease as well. Inspector Jim Morgan led the mortuary team:
The Skua gulls were eating the bodies in front of us, causing us much mental anguish as well as destroying the chances of identifying the corpses. We tried to shoo them away but to no avail, we then threw flares, also to no avail. Because of this we had to pick up all the bodies/parts that had been bagged and create 11 large piles of human remains around the crash site in order to bury them under snow to keep the birds off. To do this we had to scoop up the top layer of snow over the crash site and bury them, only later to uncover them when the weather cleared and the helos were able to get back on the site. [...]
After we had almost completed the mission, we were trapped by bad weather and isolated. At that point, NZPO2 and I allowed the liquor that had survived the crash to be given out and we had a party (macabre, but we had to let off steam).
These workers suffered post-traumatic stress. 16 bodies were not identifiable and the bodies of 28 passengers were never found.
The official accident report, not surprisingly, blamed pilot error. It is always easier to blame dead pilots. Public outcry led to a one-man inquiry by Justice Peter Mahon, who accused Air New Zealand of "an orchestrated litany of lies." However, Air New Zealand appealed these findings to avoid having to pay damages. Air New Zealand didn't deny Mahon's conclusion as to the cause of the crash - the new flight plan and the bad weather, not pilot error - but objected that there had been no conspiracy, no cover-up. The Privy Council agreed with Air New Zealand. However, Mahon received a posthumous Jim Collins Memorial Award for "exceptional contributions to air safety."
The doomed airplane had only just returned to service. It was a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and in May of that same year another DC-10
had crashed in Chicago, killing 271 - the deadliest air crash on U.S. soil - resulting in DC-10s being grounded around the world. In the early 1970s, two DC-10s had been in accidents because of the faulty design of its cargo door (A/N: these two accidents and those cargo doors were the basis of the plane crash in my story "Everything Dies, Baby"). The FAA, which has closer ties to the airline industry than the NTSB, bailed out McDonnell Douglas in those earlier incidents. Although the 1979 accidents had nothing to do with McDonnell Douglas or the DC-10's design, the public reputation of the DC-10 bottomed out. Sales of the airplane never recovered. But in 1989 - the year Edmund Hillary and June Mulgrew got married - another DC-10
crash-landed without one engine or any flight controls in a dramatic fire ball that nonetheless only killed 111 out of 296. In this case, "experts praised the DC-10's sturdy construction as partly responsible for the high number of survivors." This latest crash, in a corn field off a highway in Iowa, served as inspiration for Peter Weir's movie Fearless
. The DC-10 continues to fly under a new name, the MD-10. McDonnell Douglas has merged with Boeing.
Sightseeing flights in Antarctica stopped after the Mt. Erebus Disaster. Air New Zealand has never resumed them but Qantas picked it up again in 1994, through Croydon Travel. On their New Year's Eve flight passengers sing "Auld Lang Syne" and dance to a live jazz band as they become the first people to see the new year sun.
In 2009, thirty years after the crash, Air New Zealand apologized
to the families of the victims who did not receive adequate "support and compassion" from Air New Zealand, and paid respects to the pilots that they had initially blamed. CEO Rob Fyfe said:
For many, flight still has that element of magic, a sense of awe, that promise of reaching out to explore new worlds and a sense of adventure. And so it was for the crew and passengers of flight TE901, that set off to fly over the amazing Antarctic wonderland almost 30 years ago...
We are exposed to risk every day of our lives and aviation is no exception. Despite the enormous efforts taken to minimise the risk associated with flying we cannot eliminate risk completely and occasionally, very occasionally, accidents occur.
The occasion was the unveiling of a sculpture commemorating the crash, called "Momentum." "Momentum" is also associated with the crash of another Air New Zealand flight
in the Mediterranean the year before, which killed all 7 on board. The Mediterranean crash occurred in the morning of November 28, 2008 - exactly 29 years after the crash on Mt. Erebus. It stands at Air New Zealand's head office in Auckland. Prime Minister John Key also spoke at the event:
"The Air New Zealand crew who perished on Mt Erebus had been especially chosen. The passengers who travelled with them were also exceptional. They displayed the kind of curiosity, boldness and bravery that sets New Zealanders apart from the rest of the world [A/N: Japanese, American, British, Canadian, Australian, French, and Swiss citizens were also on board].
Today's ceremony provides an opportunity to honour those people who died in these two accidents. I hope that this quivering sculpture that signifies the fragility and beauty of air travel, will go some way to assuage the grief anger and sadness at the terrible waste of human potential."
"Momentum" isn't the only memorial for Flight 901. A stainless steel cross stands on Mt. Erebus above Scott Base, and a memorial for the unidentified is at Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland, where the unidentified remains are buried. Next to the memorial is a Japanese cherry tree planted by the Japanese Bereaved Family Erebus Society. Auckland Airport hosts a memorial for the crew with the words "This garden is your special place." Special stained glass windows are part of the St. Matthew's in the City Church and St. Stephen's Church. In January 2010, victims' relatives placed a sculpted Koru by the cross on Mt. Erebus - the Koru is filled with letters written by the relatives. Philip Gibbs, the chaplain who presided over this latest memorial service remembers
: "Living in such a place, hardly affected by humans, I developed a strong sense of the sacred in the immensity of the natural environment. Could its magnificence hide secrets of the cosmological beginnings of space, matter and time? In the silence of the icy continent, the creative Word calls forth life as it has done for eons. The southern continent resists human intervention."
"May the grace of Antarctica’s stillness be yours, the grace of its beauty and vastness be yours,
to enlighten your dreams, to open your spirit to eternity, until the angels of light awaken you." - Philip Gibbs
"During the Antarctic summer, snow melt on the flanks of Mount Erebus continually brings debris from the crash to the surface of the snow; it is plainly visible from the air."
ETA: For those interested in a documentary, Flight 901 to Erebus
is pretty good (though dated).