MH17 and Mt Erebus: Parallels and contrasts

20:43, Jul 24 2014

Hugh Logan spent 12 days working at the crash site after the Erebus disaster of 1979, contrasts the TE901 recovery operation with that of MH17 in Ukraine.

Media commentary and the images of the crash site and recovery operations of Malaysia Airlines MH17 in eastern Ukraine reveal some interesting parallels with the recovery operation after the Air New Zealand DC-10 disaster on Mt Erebus in Antarctica in 1979.

Normally with major air disasters, the international community swings into action cooperatively and almost always with unstinting support. There are internationally recognised standard operating procedures for these sorts of events.

I feel deep sympathy for the Ukrainian emergency service, local coal miners and community volunteers struggling to improvise a disaster recovery operation under the gaze and control of armed militia receiving orders from who knows where. The images from the crash site are cause for reflection on New Zealand's own air disaster that occurred on Mt Erebus.

The scenes from Mt Erebus and the MH17 site have some similarities in the difficulties facing the crash site operations.

In both cases the sites were extremely challenging; MH17 because of access restrictions imposed by militia; Erebus because of its extreme remoteness and ice terrain. These types of circumstances place incredible additional demands on those working at such sites, prevent a large number of experts in crash investigation and disaster victim identification and recovery getting to the sites, and require rapid improvisation.


At Mt Erebus almost everything had to be improvised. The site could only be reached by a 50km helicopter flight from the United States McMurdo research base, via a route with regular severe local air turbulence. Weather at the site could quickly bring all activity to a complete halt, endangering the lives of those onsite, and requiring everyone to shelter in polar tents until the blizzard conditions ceased.

A tent base had to be set up on the 15 degree ice slope, a temporary helipad built (it was particularly risking getting people off helicopters before the pad was built), food cooked in polar tents, and drinking water either melted or flown in (no washing water). Furthermore, the ground conditions were hazardous for those not experienced in mountain and Antarctic conditions.

Improvisation and co- operation was a byword for the Mt Erebus recovery. Before crash investigators and additional recovery personnel arrived from New Zealand an informal plan for site operations swung into action involving four overlapping phases: securing the site for those who were to work there; initial crash investigation and recovery of black boxes; disaster victim identification and body removal; and site cleanup.

That the entire crash site operation was completed in 12 days is a tribute to all those who worked onsite - skilled DSIR Antarctic Division personnel and New Zealand- based mountaineers, crash investigators from New Zealand and the US, police DVI personnel and US Navy photographers.

This would not have been possible but for the backing of the US and NZ people at Scott Base and McMurdo station providing overall operational oversight, logistic support (especially helicopter operations), co-operation between NZ and US authorities, media coverage, and arranging the difficult task of receiving material and bodies from the crash site and returning everything to New Zealand.

Contrasted with MH17, instead of armed militia, the site was controlled by New Zealand mountaineers with extensive search and rescue experience. Instead of bickering over access (perhaps to obscure the crash causes), the site was accessed as quickly as possible (despite the very remote location) by crash investigators from the NZ Civil Aviation Authority, the US National Transportation Safety Board, McDonnell Douglas and Air New Zealand who worked together to collect the black boxes and some (but controversially not all) crash- relevant material.

Instead of loosely organised but valiant efforts by the local civilian authorities, at Erebus teams of four comprising two police, a mountaineer, and a US Navy photographers collected up bodies and material for removal by helicopter loads to waiting containers which could be flown frozen to Auckland for the horrendous job of victim identification (which in itself was a fantastic achievement).

Also different between the two sites was the immediate work by two skilled Lands and Survey Department surveyors, Colin Fink and Peter Hall (already working in Antarctica). At Erebus these two laid out a grid network marked by a forest of flags and plotted all major features on the site, crucial to subsequent enquiries.

The images from the MH17 site are both heart rending and anger inducing. Anger inducing because it was the result of a stupid conflict that, if there is a will, could be ended, and because clearly some do not want to acknowledge they caused the disaster or allow others to find out they caused it. Heart rending because of the looks of horror and despair from those civilians involved in the recovery operation, and the pathetic remains of what they found.

In New Zealand we have argued about, and learnt from, the causes of the Mt Erebus disaster. But where we differ from MH17 and what has happened in the Ukraine is that, as a country, we can hold our heads up high in how we responded both in Antarctica and in New Zealand in our improvisation and management of the recovery operation.

- Dr Hugh Logan, from Christchurch, was one of a team of three mountaineers already working in Antarctica in 1979 who landed first at the Mt Erebus Air New Zealand DC-10 crash site, along with Professor Keith Woodford and Daryll Thomson, both of Christchurch. Logan worked at the crash site for most of the following 12 days. He, with Colin Monteath and the late John Stanton (both from Christchurch), were the last to leave the site at the end of the operation. Logan has headed the Antarctic Division of DSIR (now Antarctica NZ), the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for the Environment. He now lectures at Lincoln University.

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