Identifying Erebus victims

Members of the Erebus disaster identification team at Auckland mortuary.

Post-mortems and victim identification

By the time the second flight carrying bodies from the Erebus disaster crash site arrived on 11 December 1979 the pathology teams tasked with determining cause of death had completed post-mortem examinations on the first 114 bodies. They completed the remainder by 21 December. As subsequently reported in the chief air accident investigator's report, their examinations indicated that:

All the victims were killed by the injuries received at the initial impact rather than as a result of burns sustained in the subsequent fire.

The pathology teams worked alongside dentists, police fingerprint experts and photographers, and members of the Disaster Victim Investigation (DVI) squad. During the post-mortems the DVI team recorded any information that would assist with identification, such as sex, age, race and visible identification marks, on the DVI forms that accompanied each body or body part from Antarctica. Once the DVI form was completed it was sent to the Records Section, where the details collected by the dentists, fingerprint experts and photographers were added, and reports of the property gathered from the deceased were compiled.

Embalmers

The embalmers offered their services to police to facilitate the return of bodies to the families. But they also assisted the pathologists, by arresting the process of decomposition in 130 bodies, and the DVI teams, by restoring the features of 34 otherwise unidentifiable bodies.

The Reconciliation Section subsequently matched up the details on the DVI form and the deceased property form, with records received relating to victims of the crash, including medical and dental records. If any information on a victim was missing the Enquiry Section would attempt to find this information. If identification was confirmed the DVI form was sent to the Inquest Section so the body could be released to next of kin. Once identification had been completed funeral directors and embalmers worked hard to prepare the victims for burial or cremation.

In all, 213 of the 257 victims were identified. The identification rate of 82.9% compared well to those achieved following other air crashes. The remaining 44 victims either could not be positively identified, or their bodies had not been recovered from the crash site.

Next page: The special inquest

Community contributions

4 comments have been posted about Identifying Erebus victims

What do you know?

MDA

Posted: 10 Mar 2014

I remember Miss.Delmage - a brilliant headmistress who was so looking forward to travelling the world on her retirement.

nicola bray

Posted: 31 Mar 2013

I remember Nora Violet Delmage who was my junior school headmistress. She was on the list of unidentified victims and would have been, I guess, early 60's when she died. I remember her telling me when I was 10 in 1975 (as she sat next to me while I was eating my school dinner), how she was looking forward to travelling the World once she retired. I think she was probably not long for retirement. I can see an announcement in the London papers that her home address was shown as being in Kingsclere, Newbury, Hants, England but her solicitors acting for her estate were based in Basingstoke, Hampshire (Robert Innes-Kerr from Wills Chandler). Some records are showing her as a New Zealander but I'm pretty sure she was British. Did they find her remains? or was she simply not identified I wonder? What a sad end to her life. RIP Miss Delmage. Never forgotten. xx

Imelda Bargas

Posted: 28 Mar 2012

Thanks for your query Jane. We have photo of the memorial to the unidentified victims here: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/erebus-disaster-memorial-waikumete-cemetery
It includes inscriptions of the names of all those whose remains where not identified or recovered from Antarctica.

Jane Summer

Posted: 28 Mar 2012

I was a friend and colleague of one of the American victims, Kay Barnick, who was on TE 901 with her mother. Can you tell me how I can find out whether Kay was among the unidentified or not? Many thanks, J. Summer