Erebus disaster

Page 5 – Operation Overdue

Operation Overdue in Antarctica

In the hours that followed the sighting of the wreckage of Air New Zealand's Antarctic Flight TE901, professionals and volunteers around the country learned that they were required to head, assist or report on the site investigation and recovery operation. Many of those working at Scott Base and McMurdo Station would provide invaluable assistance to the investigation and recovery parties.

Stu Leighton – Disaster Victim Identification Squad

In late 1978, 22-year-old Constable Stu Leighton joined the newly developed Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) Squad. On the day of the Erebus accident, he and other Wellington-based DVI team members were at Police National Headquarters looking at DVI procedures which had been amended following a recent DC-10 air crash in Chicago.

As Leighton returned to the Lower Hutt Police Station, his ‘very experienced’ sergeant said to him, ‘Stu, you know, I have been in the police for over 25 years and we have never had to use these procedures, and we never will.’ The next day, Leighton and 10 other police officers were en route to Antarctica. None of them had ever been to Antarctica, and Leighton had never touched snow.

Inspector Leighton's Account – New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association
Episode 2: The Caravan. White Silence podcast – Stuff/RNZ

The first party left Christchurch on the day after the crash. It included the chief air accident investigator, Ron Chippindale, who led the site investigation, and the Police search and rescue coordinator, Inspector Robert (Bob) Mitchell, who led the recovery operation.

On 30 November US Navy helicopters flew Chippindale, Mitchell and other key members of the party to view the crash site. They subsequently agreed on priorities.

Poor weather delayed progress until the afternoon of 2 December. Then, as agreed, two surveyors, members of the investigation team, and their mountaineer assistants were flown to the site. Their priority was to find the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the digital flight data recorder (DFDR), both of which were located within a few hours. The weather closed in again but as soon as it cleared on the morning of 3 December the recorders were flown back to McMurdo.

The break in the weather allowed the first members of the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team to leave from McMurdo. Deteriorating weather initially hampered efforts to get the remaining team members up to the site, and a blizzard that evening halted work until early the following day.

By 10 December the site investigation and recovery operation in Antarctica was complete. The investigators had recovered the CVR, DFDR and other instruments, including the cockpit flight panel. The DVI teams had recovered 114 substantially intact bodies, 133 bags of human remains, and countless personal belongings. Many more weeks of work lay ahead in New Zealand to complete the investigation and identify the victims.

Operation Overdue in New Zealand

As those involved in the recovery operation headed to Antarctica, work was also under way in New Zealand to help identify the victims that had been recovered. The victim identification phase of Operation Overdue was headed by Chief Inspector Jim Morgan of the DVI team, which included other police, fingerprint experts, pathologists, photographers, dentists, funeral directors and embalmers, and representatives of Air New Zealand (to help identify the cabin and flight crew).

On 6 December 1979 the first flight carrying bodies from the crash site arrived at the Royal New Zealand Air Force's Auckland base at Whenuapai. By the time the second flight arrived on 11 December the pathology teams tasked with determining cause of death had completed post-mortem examinations on 114 bodies. They completed the remainder by 21 December.

As subsequently reported in the chief air accident investigator's accident report, their examinations indicated that all the victims had been 'killed by the injuries received at the initial impact rather than as a result of burns sustained in the subsequent fire.' In all, 213 of the 257 victims were identified. This identification rate of 82.9% compared well to the rates achieved following other air crashes.

On 22 January 1980 a special inquest was opened into the deaths. At the conclusion of the inquest, on 30 January, the coroner found that no one could have survived the crash, and confirmed that the 44 people who had either not been positively identified or whose bodies had not been recovered had been on the flight.

Aftermath of Operation Overdue

Few of those involved in the recovery and identification of victims from the Erebus disaster could have been truly prepared for the task. Recognition was given to the post-traumatic stress suffered by those involved in Operation Overdue. Counselling was offered to all who wanted it, and the debriefing report completed by psychiatrist Alan Frazier and psychologist Tony Taylor emphasised the need for officers in command of such operations to know how to recognise and deal with signs of stress in staff. It was several years before offering psychological support became standard practice in the New Zealand Police.

Within months of the disaster the New Zealand Police presented certificates of appreciation to some of the people who had assisted in Operation Overdue. In March 1982, the New Zealand Police commended 10 sworn police officers and non-sworn civilian staff members for their outstanding services during Operation Overdue.

Further recognition finally came in November 2006 with the institution of the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus) ‘to recognise 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'. Several hundred New Zealanders and about 40 US citizens were eligible for the medal.

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How to cite this page

'Operation Overdue', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Mar-2024