Erebus disaster

Page 4 – Hearing the news

The crash of Air New Zealand's Flight TE901 happened so quickly that the crew had no opportunity to react, let alone send a radio message. But those monitoring the flight in Antarctica soon became concerned. When it failed to appear and did not advise a change in heading, they made a series of radio calls - without response. By 2 p.m. NZST* the flight had been radio silent for over an hour. The authorities in Antarctica advised Air New Zealand headquarters in Auckland of the situation, and sent up search and rescue aircraft.

Those arriving to meet passengers at Flight TE901's scheduled arrival time in Christchurch of 7.05 p.m. NZDT were initially told that it was not unusual for the flight to run a little late. But as time passed it became clear something had gone wrong. News of the situation had been relayed to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre's headquarters in Auckland and to the New Zealand Police's national headquarters in Wellington. They began to contact next of kin to tell them that the flight was overdue, and liaised with each other over New Zealand-based search and rescue operations.

News of a possible problem with the flight may have been announced in radio bulletins from 7 p.m. Newspapers were aware that the flight was overdue by approximately 8.20. TVNZ interrupted its normal broadcasting with a special news bulletin on the flight just after 8.30. Air New Zealand issued a statement confirming that the flight was overdue at approximately 9 p.m. This was around the time the flight was scheduled to land at Māngere airport, Auckland.

If they hadn't already heard the news, those arriving to meet disembarking passengers at Māngere airport quickly learned something was wrong - the arrivals board directed them to ‘check with airline'. Air New Zealand airport manager Don Murray issued a statement explaining that the flight had been radio silent for a number of hours and would by now have run out of fuel. Shortly before 10 p.m. Air New Zealand's public affairs director, Craig Saxon, issued a statement in which the airline accepted that the ‘aircraft must be down'. This statement, reported on radio and in South Pacific Television's News at 10, was all most people would have known about the fate of the flight before they went to bed that night.

At this point there was still hope that some of those on board might have survived a crash. But at 1.15 a.m. NZDT Air New Zealand Chief Executive Morrie Davis told the media that wreckage had been sighted near Mt Erebus, with no sign of survivors. This news was broadcast in radio bulletins and on TVNZ in the early hours of the morning.

Confirmation that there were no survivors came later that day after three New Zealand mountaineers, Keith Woodford, Hugh Logan and Daryl Thompson, were lowered onto the crash site by US Navy helicopters. At 12.23 p.m. NZDT Mike Hatcher, the Press Liaison Officer at the Operation Deep Freeze base in Christchurch, issued a brief statement confirming that ‘everybody that was on that aircraft has died’. Radio bulletins and afternoon editions of newspapers reported this news and further details that were subsequently provided by the mountaineers.

*On the day of the Erebus disaster there was a one-hour time difference between New Zealand and McMurdo Station. McMurdo Station was operating under New Zealand Standard Time (NZST) while New Zealand was operating under daylight saving or New Zealand Daylight Time (NZDT). Scott Base and McMurdo Station did not begin observing daylight saving until the summer of 1992/93. 

How to cite this page

'Hearing the news', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/erebus-disaster/hearing-the-news, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 19-Sep-2019