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Erebus disaster

Page 7 – Remembering Erebus

After confirmation was received that no one had survived the crash of Flight TE901, expressions of sympathy began to arrive from around New Zealand and the world. Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, and Air New Zealand management and staff were among the many who publicly expressed their feelings of sympathy to the victims’ family and friends.

Even before this confirmation was received, memorial masses had been held at churches throughout New Zealand. In the days that followed more formal memorial services took place in the country’s main centres, and many more were held in other communities affected by the disaster – including at Scott Base in Antarctica. As the recovery operation neared completion, those involved built a timber cross which was erected near the crash site on Mt Erebus.

Since the first anniversary of the disaster on 28 November 1980 further memorials have been erected, and numerous memorial services have been held, to commemorate those who died. Most of these memorials lie within the Auckland region, the flight’s departure point and destination, but memorials have been erected and memorial services have been held elsewhere in the country. Coordinated church services observed the 25th anniversary of the crash on 28 November 2004.

Government is currently seeking a home for a National Erebus Memorial in Aotearoa New Zealand. The site will be enduring, so present and future generations can visit the memorial, to grieve, reflect and celebrate those who lost their lives on 28 November 1979.

Government and Air New Zealand apologies, 2019

On the 40th anniversary of the accident, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered a formal apology to the families of those who had been killed. In her apology she confirmed that ‘the pilots were not responsible for this tragedy, and I stand here today to state that again. But these were not findings accepted by the government of the day. The government did not table the [Mahon] report in Parliament. Nearly twenty years went by before the report was finally tabled in 1999. That was wrong. It caused trauma on top of grief. And persecution on top of pain.’

Ardern further acknowledged that, ‘in an environment of tumultuous claim and counter claim, of public confusion and ongoing debate, it is difficult I am sure to find a clear place to set down your grief. After forty long years, you deserve to find that place…. After forty years, on behalf of today's government, the time has come to apologise for the actions of an airline then in full state ownership, which ultimately caused the loss of the aircraft and the loss of those you loved.’

On behalf of Air New Zealand, chairwoman Dame Therese Walsh echoed the prime minister’s sentiments, apologising on behalf of an airline which ‘failed its duty of care’, and for the way the families had been treated. ‘Better care should have been taken of you.’

Captain Andrew Ridling, President of the New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association, described the apology as a ‘game changer’. For so many years the pilots of Flight TE901 had been subjected to ‘unfair conjecture and blame that affected their professional reputations. Ridling concluded that it was ‘very important to us and the families to hear the prime minister say the pilots were not responsible for this tragedy. We have waited a very long time to see that put right.’

Kathryn Carter, the daughter of pilot Captain Jim Collins, felt ‘vindicated’ by the apologies from the prime minister and Air New Zealand. It was ‘fantastic for our family to hear’ that the pilots weren’t to blame for what happened that day. While the apology could not ‘bring the dead back’, they could ‘at least now rest in peace’. Maria Collins, Jim Collins’ widow, had not thought an apology would be made in her lifetime.

Erebus and the education curriculum

In Te Akomanga teachers can find support material as to how to use the Erebus accident and its aftermath to explore ideas around what we remember of people and events from our past, and how we remember them. We can also ask how we address historic human injustice and the role of apologies in facilitating processes of historical reconciliation.


How to cite this page

Remembering Erebus, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/erebus-disaster/remembering-erebus-disaster, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated