Initial Erebus memorial services

Memorial service, Scott Base, 2 December 1979. Left to right: US Navy chaplain, Garth Varcoe, Bob Dunnachie (obscured), Father Creagh, Mike Prebble, unknown, Bob Thomson (superintendent, Antarctic Division, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research), Captain Westbrook, unknown.

Initial memorials and memorial services

At midday on 29 November, just before confirmation that no one had survived the crash of TE901 was received, memorial masses were held at a number of churches around New Zealand. A mass at St Mary of the Angels in Wellington was attended by about 200 people, including Air New Zealand staff members who had lost friends in the crash. In the following days more formal memorial services were held in the country's main centres, and in other communities affected by the disaster.

Byrd memorial

On the afternoon of 29 November a brief ceremony was due to take place at the Byrd Memorial on Mt Victoria in Wellington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Admiral Richard Byrd's South Pole flight. After some discussion this went ahead, with several minutes' silence added in memory of the victims of the Erebus disaster.

An ecumenical memorial service at Wellington Cathedral of St Paul on 30 November was attended by approximately 500 people. Dignitaries present in the congregation included the Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Rowling, and representatives of Commonwealth and the American and Japanese governments. Air New Zealand was represented by some its top executives, and the service was also attended by airline staff who were 'conspicuous in their uniforms'. On 4 December, some 700 people attended a memorial service at St Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland, and there was also a service at Christchurch Cathedral. The congregation at the Auckland service included relatives of the 24 Japanese victims who had arrived in the country two days earlier.

Memorial book stolen

In April 2009 a book put together for the memorial service at St Matthew-in-the-City was stolen. It listed the names of all the victims of the Erebus disaster in calligraphic writing. The book was returned to the church undamaged the following day.

Many other memorial services took place around New Zealand during this period, particularly in places where a valued community member or members had been lost. Services were also held overseas, including at Scott Base in Antarctica.

The Scott Base service was held on 2 December, a Sunday. This was traditionally the base's 'quiet' day of the week, and bad weather was preventing those involved in the recovery operation reaching the crash site. The service was attended by those at Scott Base, including the base leader, Mike Prebble, superintendent of the Antarctic Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research Bob Thomson, and Minister of Science and Technology Bill Birch. It began inside the base and concluded at the flagpole outside, on which the flag had been flying at half-mast since the disaster.

Australian sightseers

Qantas's flights to Antarctica operated as charters and were not suspended immediately after the disaster. Shortly before the Scott Base memorial service, a Qantas Boeing 747 entered Australian Antarctic Territory airspace with over 300 sightseers onboard. One of the two remaining charters planned for the summer was cancelled.

Also at the service was a timber memorial cross constructed by the deputy leader at Scott Base, Ted Robinson, and building services officer Garth Varcoe. Many of those involved in the site investigation and recovery operation had assisted with its construction, taking 'one or two shavings off it with a plane' or 'rubbing a little oil into the wood'. Just before Christmas a party erected the cross near the crash site.

Twenty-four of the passengers killed in the Erebus disaster were Japanese. For cultural and religious reasons, their relatives were desperate to visit the place where they had died. The first Japanese visitor to the crash site was a scientist, Katsu Kaminuma, who accompanied the party which erected the cross.

On 19 December a memorial service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. While most immediate family members were now in New Zealand, other family members and friends of victims, and hundreds of other New Zealanders, attended the service.

By this time all the human remains recovered from the crash site had been taken to the Auckland Medical School mortuary for identification. Where individuals could be identified their remains were released to next of kin for burial or cremation. Many funeral services were held around Christmas time.

In late January 1980 a special inquest was held into the deaths of the 257 people on board. 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 from the crash site had been on the flight. He subsequently released remains which had been recovered, but not positively identified, to Air New Zealand for burial.

On 12 February 1980 some 500 people attended an interdenominational burial service at Waikumete Cemetery, Auckland, in the memory of the 44 people who had not been positively identified; the remains were buried in a mass grave in 16 coffins.

Next page: Later memorials and memorial services 

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