Members of the Erebus disaster identification team at Auckland mortuary.
By the time the second flight carrying bodies from the Erebus disaster crash site arrived on 11 December 1979 the pathology teams tasked with determining cause of death had completed post-mortem examinations on the first 114 bodies. They completed the remainder by 21 December. As subsequently reported in the chief air accident investigator's report, their examinations indicated that:
All the victims were killed by the injuries received at the initial impact rather than as a result of burns sustained in the subsequent fire.
The pathology teams worked alongside dentists, police fingerprint experts and photographers, and members of the Disaster Victim Investigation (DVI) squad. During the post-mortems the DVI team recorded any information that would assist with identification, such as sex, age, race and visible identification marks, on the DVI forms that accompanied each body or body part from Antarctica. Once the DVI form was completed it was sent to the Records Section, where the details collected by the dentists, fingerprint experts and photographers were added, and reports of the property gathered from the deceased were compiled.
The embalmers offered their services to police to facilitate the return of bodies to the families. But they also assisted the pathologists, by arresting the process of decomposition in 130 bodies, and the DVI teams, by restoring the features of 34 otherwise unidentifiable bodies.
The Reconciliation Section subsequently matched up the details on the DVI form and the deceased property form, with records received relating to victims of the crash, including medical and dental records. If any information on a victim was missing the Enquiry Section would attempt to find this information. If identification was confirmed the DVI form was sent to the Inquest Section so the body could be released to next of kin. Once identification had been completed funeral directors and embalmers worked hard to prepare the victims for burial or cremation.
In all, 213 of the 257 victims were identified. The identification rate of 82.9% compared well to those achieved following other air crashes. The remaining 44 victims either could not be positively identified, or their bodies had not been recovered from the crash site.
Next page: The special inquest