Ongoing debate over Erebus

Minister of Transport Maurice Williamson tabling the Mahon report in the House of Representatives in 1999.

The ongoing debate

The debate over whether pilot error or Air New Zealand was at fault for the Erebus disaster continues today. It is often stirred up by media interest or by events held on significant anniversaries of the disaster.

On 18 August 1999 the Minister of Transport, Maurice Williamson, who worked at Air New Zealand as a corporate planner at the time of the crash, tabled the Mahon report in Parliament. Present for the occasion were Maria Collins and Anne Cassin, the widows of two of the pilots on the flight, and Margarita Mahon, Justice Peter Mahon's widow.

Williamson argued that the time for apportioning blame was over and that he was tabling the report because 'of the lessons it taught'. He commented that:

The International Civil Aviation Organisation says the report was 10 years ahead of its time; that subsequent high-technology systems catastrophes such as those at Chenobyl and Bhopal need not have happened if the international safety community had grasped the message from Erebus and adopted its prevention lessons.

Passing on

Many of the key players involved in the investigation and Inquiry have died in the years since the Erebus disaster. They include Justice Peter Mahon, Morrie Davis, the chief executive of Air New Zealand at the time of the crash, and Ron Chippindale, the chief air accident investigator.

But the announcement once again stimulated debate over who was at fault. Some involved in the accident investigation and Royal Commission of Inquiry argued that Williamson should also be tabling the judgements of the Court of Appeal and the Privy Council on the report. NZ First MP Robyn McDonald, whose father E.T. Kippenberger was the director of the Civil Aviation Division at the time of the crash, attempted to table these judgements but was refused permission to do so.

On 23 October 2009, Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe unveiled a sculpture 'Momentum' marking the significant events in Air New Zealand's history, including the Erebus disaster. During the ceremony he apologised to those affected by the tragedy for Air New Zealand's failures and for its treatment of families of the victims. He commented:

I can't turn the clock back, but as I look forward, I would like to start this next step in our journey - by saying sorry. Sorry to all those who suffered the loss of a loved one or were affected by the Erebus tragedy and who did not receive the support and compassion they should have from Air New Zealand.

For many this apology did not go far enough. Maria Collins, the wife of Captain Jim Collins, the pilot of Flight TE901, noted that it was a step in the right direction. But she still hopes to clear her husband's name, commenting that his 'integrity is still very much on the line and I'm still keen to see that intact again'.

Next page: Expressions of sympathy


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