Scars left by an Antarctic mountain

Last updated 12:32 14/07/2014
Erebus doco

COLD COMFORT: Docudrama Erebus - Operation Overdue showed how gruelling it was for the police team sent to Antarctica to recover the bodies from the Air New Zealand crash.

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"A little cigarette smudge on the side of the mountain." That's what the remains of the Air New Zealand plane that flew into Mt Erebus on November 28, 1979, looked like to the police officers who were chosen to go in to retrieve the bodies of the 257 people who died in that accident.

It's all very well remembering where you were when Kennedy died or when man first walked on the moon but the Erebus accident (Erebus - Operation Overdue, TV One last night) was ours, defining us in a way that only tragedies seem to.

Like the Tangiwai disaster and the sinking of the Wahine, they not only involved our own vessels but the vast majority of the victims were New Zealanders.

Nearly everyone either knew someone or knew someone who did. It might have been 35 years ago but I'll never forget the image of the plane filling the screen of our little black and white television. They never do that - unless there's been an accident.

And it's been the most complicated of accidents, responsible for the expression "an orchestrated litany of lies" coming into regular usage.

Initially the pilot was blamed - exactly what Malaysia Airlines are attempting to do with their own recent disaster. It is, of course, the easiest answer.

Meanwhile, though, what this docudrama did so harrowingly well was to look at how it felt to be one of the people who had to go in and tidy up.

It's hard to visualise how hideous the site was. If you'd imagined a neat row of people still in their seats, or simply looking asleep, then you were in for a nasty surprise. It would have been impossible to train the police for what they had to do over the next days. Nothing could have been more gruelling and those interviewed made clear that the experience was horrendous and psychologically wounding.

The documentary makers made excellent use of then-police officers Greg Gilpin, Stewart Leighton, Mark Penn and Bob Mitchell.

Gilpin in particular was fantastic - warm, articulate and unafraid to speak out.

He'd found the captain's ringbinder, complete with flight records, which were to - crucially - disappear. We were reminded that those running Air New Zealand did not come well out of this whole sad business.

Meanwhile - this is my 670th television review for this paper, and it is to be my last. To be paid to watch television has been a stupendous treat, and I have (usually) loved the feedback. At least now I can watch without a pen and paper in hand. Good viewing to you all.

ONE TO WATCH: Campbell Live, TV3, 7pm. His brain and his heart are engaged.

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- The Dominion Post


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