28 Nov 2009

Strong winds prevent Erebus families landing

9:28 pm on 28 November 2009

Bad weather has stopped relatives of those killed in the Erebus disaster from returning to the scene of the tragedy.

Six relatives of the victims have been flown to Antarctica as part of commemorations for the 30th anniversary of the crash.

It was to be the first time relatives of those who died had visited the site, where all 257 passengers and crew on the Air New Zealand sightseeing flight were killed on 28 November 1979.

The group touched down at Scott Base in a United States Airforce C-17 on Friday afternoon and were then taken in two helicopters to the slopes of Mt Erebus.

Visibility was good but strong winds prevented the helicopters from landing at a specially protected area known as the DC-10 Memorial Cross.

Senior Antarctica New Zealand representative Iain Miller says another attempt will be made to visit the site on Monday morning.

Powerful and moving

A Scott Base representative in Antarctica says Saturday's memorial service for the victims of the disaster was a powerful experience.

Family members of the victims, Air New Zealand staff, and local workers attended the ceremony, which included a service and the laying of a wreath of flowers at the base's flagpole.

The support supervisor of the Scott Base programme, Simon Trotter, says it was a powerful and moving event, especially significant because of the presence of family members and representatives of Air New Zealand.

"It was a very interesting, powerful and moving experience - coupled with the beauty of the Antarctic environment."

Mr Trotter says family members will visit Cape Evans on Sunday.

Emotional trip for family

Before taking off in a helicopter Eric Houghton, whose father was one of the victims, said it felt right to be returning to the scene of the crash. He had already been to the site hundreds of times in his mind.

Pip Collins, daughter of Captain Jim Collins, who piloted the fatal flight, said: "It's something I feel like I've been preparing for for a long time and now I'm finally here and it's just incredibly lovely."

Frances Kell, who lost her father in the crash, said she was looking forward to finally finding peace with Antarctica.

"For 30 years we've had nothing, and now at last we're taking a really big step forward," she said.

Before the group left for Antarctica, Mr Collins's widow, Maria Collins, told Nine to Noon that the anniversary would be sad but also filled with laughter and happy memories.

Airline to consider further visits

Air New Zealand says it will look at how it can help more families of victims visit the crash site. The airline's international general manager, Ed Sims, told Morning Report they'd discuss options with the Government, the airforce and interested parties such as businessman Mike Pero.

"We'll be looking at all opportunities, in conjunction with the Government, to allow as many people to get as close to Mt Erebus as they possibly can over the coming years," he said.

Mike Pero has put on hold the idea of a charter flight to Mt Erebus in January, following controversy over the plan and criticism from Air New Zealand - though he is not giving up entirely on the idea.

Mr Sims said a sightseeing flight over Mt Erebus did not offer the same sense of closure for bereaved families as would the Air New Zealand visit, allowing relatives to get to the crash site.

However, he says the airline's criticism of Mr Pero's venture was based on the timing of his announcement in the run-up to the commemorations, not the concept of the flight itself.

Pero to look again at flight

Mr Pero says he's suffered a couple of hard days after comments by Air New Zealand about his motivation but still wants to be involved in organising trips to Antarctica.

He says he will sit down with Air New Zealand next week to discuss future flights.

He told Morning Report that plane supplier Qantas, which had suggested flight attendants would not be available for the planned trip in January, will be able to resolve the issue.