Announcing Erebus flight out of fuel

Colin McLachlan, Minister of Civil Aviation, talks to reporters on the night of the Erebus disaster just after it had been confirmed that the aircraft was now out of fuel.

Out of fuel

Waiting for news

Mark Benney describes the fortitude of relatives waiting for news of the Erebus flight at Auckland airport. Read more about this sound file.

If they hadn't already heard the news, friends and family arriving at Mangere airport to meet passengers from Air New Zealand's Antarctic Flight TE901 quickly learnt that there was something wrong – the arrivals board directed them to 'check with airline'. At 9.05 p.m. (NZDT*), around the time Air New Zealand made its first statement on the flight, they were moved to the Auckland Regional Authority's conference room. Here airport manager Don Murray broke the news that the flight was 'not quite normal', explaining that it had been radio silent for a number of hours and had just run out of fuel. Like their counterparts in Christchurch they were provided with refreshments; a priest later arrived to comfort them.

At about 9.30, by which time the aircraft would have been out of fuel for over half an hour, Air New Zealand headquarters received a phone call from Christchurch confirming that it had still not arrived. Shortly before 10 p.m. the airline's public affairs director, Craig Saxon, issued the following statement:

It is with great regret that we must accept that the aircraft is lost. It is assumed that the aircraft must be down.

This statement, reported on the radio and in South Pacific Television's News at 10, is the most many people would have known of the flight before retiring to bed for the night.

At this point there was still some hope that the aircraft had crashed somewhere and that there could be survivors. In his statement Craig Saxon emphasised the extensive life support equipment on board the aircraft. And shortly afterwards the Minister of Civil Aviation, Colin McLachlan, spoke of the search and rescue efforts that had been launched. The Minister was at Christchurch airport waiting to talk to the crew of the US Air Force Starlifter tasked with searching along TE901's proposed flight track.

At around 10.30 the Starlifter arrived in Christchurch. The pilot, Major Bruce Gumble, reported that he hadn't heard from TE901's flight crew for some time before their own landing at McMurdo. Much to the dismay of those waiting, he also advised that they had seen nothing of the aircraft on their return flight. By 11 p.m. the replacement crew, family and friends began to leave the airports – to wait for further news at home.

In Antarctica search efforts continued to yield negative results. The US Navy's LC-130, XD-01, continued to search, while the two UH-1N helicopters, Gentle 14 and 17, returned to base to refuel before resuming their searches. At 10.03 p.m. (NZST) another LC-130, XD-03, began searching high ground to the south of Ross Island.

Hope faded as the night went on. In an interview at approximately midnight (NZDT) Air New Zealand chief executive Morrie Davis was asked whether there was any hope of passengers surviving. He responded:

Clearly, it is a question one would like to answer in the positive. But I must say the circumstances indicate any chance is a very slim one.

*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 1992/93.  

Next page: Wreckage sighted 

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