Remembering the Erebus tragedy

Flowers bedeck the commemorative plaque at the Erebus Memorial Garden

Butterflies took flight over the Erebus Memorial Garden at Auckland Airport as aviation members, former crew, friends and family gathered on 28 November for a special service to mark the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster.

Twenty crew including 15 cabin crew lost their lives when Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed into Erebus, killing all 257 people on board. It is New Zealand’s deadliest peacetime disaster, and the deadliest accident in Air New Zealand’s history.

The well attended service saw the laying of wreaths, including one by MPs Phil Twyford and Marja Lubeck, formerly E tū’s head of Aviation, who read a message from the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Te Akitai Waiohua kaumatua David Wilson Takaanini blessed the garden of 20 native plants – one plant for each crew member. Relatives and colleagues of crew members killed in the tragedy were invited to sprinkle the plants with water from snow melt from Mt Erebus, provided by Antarctica New Zealand.

E tū Life Member and former cabin crew member, Grahame Clark and his wife Raewyn, read out the names of the crew members who died, before 20 monarch butterflies were released. A minute’s silence at 1.49pm (12.49 NZST) marked the time of the crash, with many visibly moved by the moment. An audio recording was also played of the waiata ‘Ex Erebus’, performed by Miriam Clancy, the niece of crew member Marie Wolfert.

Grahame and Raewyn were prime movers in establishing the Airport Memorial Garden in honour of the fallen crew. Grahame remembers the day of the disaster vividly. “It’s something you never forget,” he says.

He remembers joking around with the ill-fated crew ahead of their flight, the initial shock when the flight was reported missing, then the terrible news that the wreckage had been found. “It was pretty traumatic as you can imagine. You were just numb,” says Grahame. “At that time, imagine, 40 years ago, we were like family. Everyone knew everyone else. We lost really close friends. Everyone knew someone on that flight.”

In the words of the waiata Ex Erebus: “Where our tears meet the snow, you will never grow old on the mountain of hope.”

The day also marked the 11th anniversary of the crash of an Air New Zealand A320 off the coast of Perpignan in France in 2008, killing five New Zealand aviation workers, including Air New Zealand engineers Murray White, Michael Gyles and Noel Marsh.

May we never forget. We should always remember the people we lose at work and the importance of a true safety culture.