Hearing the news - Erebus Disaster

The crash of Air New Zealand's Antarctic Flight TE901 happened so quickly that the crew had no opportunity to react, let alone radio the ground with any sign of distress. But those monitoring the flight in Antarctica soon grew concerned. When it failed to appear, without radioing to notify of a change in heading, they initiated a series of radio calls - without response. By 2 p.m. (NZST)* the flight had been radio silent for over an hour. They advised Air New Zealand headquarters in Auckland of the situation, and activated search and rescue aircraft.

Those arriving to meet passengers at Flight TE901's scheduled arrival time in Christchurch at 7.05 p.m. (NZDT) were initially told that it was not unusual for the flight to run a little late. But as the hours wore on it became clear something had gone wrong. News of the situation had been relayed to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre's headquarters in Auckland and to the New Zealand Police's national headquarters in Wellington. They began to contact next of kin to advise that the flight was overdue, and liaise over New Zealand based search and rescue operations.

News of a problem with the flight was possibly announced in radio bulletins from 7 p.m. onwards. Newspapers had certainly received news that the flight was overdue by approximately 8.20. TVNZ interrupted its normal broadcasting with a special news bulletin on the flight just after 8.30. Air New Zealand didn't issue its first statement - confirming that the flight was overdue - until approximately 9 p.m. This was around the flight's scheduled arrival time at Mangere airport, Auckland.

If they hadn't already heard the news, those arriving to meet passengers of TE901 at Mangere airport quickly learned something was wrong - the arrivals board directed them to ‘check with airline'. At around the same time, Air New Zealand made its first statement - airport manager Don Murray explained that the flight had been radio silent for a number of hours and had just run out of fuel. Shortly before 10 p.m. Air New Zealand's public affair's director, Craig Saxon, issued a statement in which the airline accepted the ‘aircraft must be down'. This statement, reported on radio and in South Pacific Television's News at 10, is the most many people would have known of the flight before going to bed for the night.

At this point there was still some hope that the aircraft had crashed and that there could be survivors. It wasn't until 1.15 a.m. (NZDT) that Air New Zealand Chief Executive Morrie Davis advised the media that wreckage had been sighted near Mt Erebus, with no sign of survivors. This news was broadcast in radio bulletins and on TVNZ in the early hours of the morning.

Final confirmation that there were no survivors came later that day after three New Zealand mountaineers, Keith Woodford, Hugh Logan and Daryl Thompson, were lowered onto the crash site by US Navy helicopters. At 12.23 p.m. (NZDT) Mike Hatcher, the Press Liaison Officer at Operation Deep Freeze base in Christchurch, issued a brief statement confirming that ‘everybody that was on that aircraft has died’. Radio bulletins and evening editions of newspapers reported this news and further details of the crash site subsequently provided by the mountaineers.

*On the day of the Erebus disaster there was a one-hour time difference between New Zealand and McMurdo Station. McMurdo Station was operating under New Zealand Standard Time (NZST) while New Zealand was operating under daylight saving or New Zealand Daylight Time (NZDT). Scott Base and McMurdo Station did not begin observing daylight saving until 1992/93. 

How to cite this page: 'Hearing the news - Erebus Disaster', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/erebus-disaster/hearing-the-news, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012