Mt Erebus crash etched in brain

SECURING COURT: Hamilton District Court security guard Dennis Nathan says he will never forget his time in Antarctica helping after the Mt Erebus crash.
SECURING COURT: Hamilton District Court security guard Dennis Nathan says he will never forget his time in Antarctica helping after the Mt Erebus crash.

It was 8.30pm on November 28, 1979 in Antarctica, and Dennis Nathan and the rest of his Army comrades were told to hand over a white sheet each.

Thirty minutes earlier, Nathan and the 25 other servicemen deployed to the area for a three-month stint had been told that an Air New Zealand DC-10 was missing.

But by 10pm, officials realised they wouldn't need the sheets - for a morgue - instead, they would use body bags.

Thirty-five years and a Special Service Medal later, Nathan is now working as security for the Ministry of Justice in the Waikato region, based at Hamilton District Court.

He's been there eight years, helping keeping the peace, making sure accused and their families obey strict procedure in the court rooms and, of course, ensuring that no weapons are brought on to the premises.

It's a change of scene from his days in the Army, especially the night the aircraft crashed into Mt Erebus.

At the time, Nathan was 29 years old and the on-duty sergeant night shift operator for the strip one runway. During the summer the frozen Ross Sea is used as an airstrip.

On the night of the crash, Nathan said it was about 8pm when they were told communication with the DC-10 had been lost.

"It can't have landed. Come 10pm it would have run out of fuel and that's when they realised it would have crashed. They knew it was in Antarctica somewhere. The last communication was prior to getting to Antarctica itself and of course there was no communication after that."

The crash scene was 40 minutes' flying time from their base at McMurdo Station. Nathan and some of his team were charged with stacking the bodies in large wooden boxes on the plane to be sent back to New Zealand.

Just over two weeks later he was also able to fly home, having finished his three-month stint.

Nathan was brought up in Hamilton by his grandparents and it was following their deaths in 1969 - a week apart - and after seeing an Army truck drive past him, that he knew where his career path lay.

The Vietnam War had just begun and he wanted to be a part of it.

"When I got down [to Waiouru for training] I thought ‘this isn't me'. It was cold and miserable and people were screaming at you, but after about three weeks I thought ‘I'm loving this'."

What did he love so much?

"The discipline, the challenge, meeting new people. The Army was going to look after me, pay me, feed me, send me overseas."

He went to Fiji, around Asia, and on two trips to Antarctica - the first in 1973.

In 1974 he joined the NZSAS - Special Air Service - for a couple of years in a support role as the transport supervisor, in charge of six drivers and vehicles.

He confesses that it was during this time he nearly died while completing a parachute jump, which would prove to be his last.

He'd jumped out of a Hercules from 1000 feet and had a "bad landing" suffering severe injuries in his right leg that left him out of action for three months - and banned from parachuting.

After three decades in the Army, Nathan decided to call it quits - he felt guilty about dragging his wife and kids around the world.

He got a job with the then Ministry of Transport as a driver education officer before leaving to work for a private company and then joining the Department of Corrections as a prison officer based at Waikeria in 2003.

In 2007, he was awarded the New Zealand Special Service Medal by then Police Minister Annette King for his efforts after the Erebus crash.

Initially it was the hours that attracted him to the district court job in 2008, but he's proud of the work he and his team do.

"I've got a good team here, a dedicated, honest team and that's what it's all about here, working as a team . . . I don't think there's any bits I don't like, I find it challenging."

Those challenges include dealing with upset people. "Sometimes it can get a bit violent but all of our security staff have been dealing with these sorts of people for years . . . our basic role is to be non-confrontational and showing presence as a deterrence."

On the home front, he's the proud father of two girls and grandfather of four girls ranging in age from nine to 21.

One of those granddaughters, 17-year-old Jhanaya Nathan, is a world champion - she was a member of the Hamilton Girls' High School team who won the Aloha World Sevens trophy in Hawaii earlier this month.

"Yeah, I'm pretty proud of her. She loves her rugby."

As for Nathan, he's happy in his job and doesn't plan any drastic changes.

He's clocked up a lot of sights and scenes over his 64 years, but there will always be one etched into his memory - Erebus.

"I will never forget it."