8 Nov 2019

White Silence: The Break In

From White Silence, 5:00 am on 8 November 2019

As the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster nears, the widow of the pilot whose Air New Zealand jet crashed into Mount Erebus speaks of a mysterious burglary months after the tragedy...

This story is part of White Silence, a six-part podcast series from Stuff and RNZ to mark the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster. You can listen to White Silence on Stuff, or via Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or any other app using the RSS feed. The episodes will be released daily from Friday, November 8.

Perhaps the strangest twist in the whole saga of the Erebus disaster happened on the night of 29 March, 1980. 

Maria Collins remembers that night for several reasons.  

It was her birthday. It was also the first time she’d ventured out for an evening in four months, since her husband Jim had been killed while piloting the Air New Zealand DC10 that crashed in Antarctica, killing all 257 people on board.  

White Silence is a podcast from Stuff and RNZ on the Erebus disaster, Air New Zealand's darkest hour.

White Silence is a podcast from Stuff and RNZ on the Erebus disaster, Air New Zealand's darkest hour. Photo: Stuff / Sungmi Kim

Mostly though, she remembers that March night for what she found when she got home from her birthday drinks. The first thing she noticed was sheets of paper littered over the staircase. 

“I thought, 'That's funny ... I must have been untidy or something'. But they're broken, broken bits. They're torn bits. Coming down the stairway? 

“I went to put the light on and I thought, ‘that's funny. [We] must have a power cut … We’d already had a drink of something before we left. So I'd left the used glasses up there and they're all, not broken, but in disarray. 

“You just know. I'd never had a burglary.” 

Maria called the police. The burglary was strange for a few reasons. For instance, the power cut - how many burglars cut the power?  

Also, hardly anything was missing.  

A tape recorder was gone, a digital clock, some passports - but not Maria’s jewellery, which was in the same drawer as the passports.  

There was one more thing: a photo of her husband, Captain Jim Collins, torn to pieces, and placed back in the envelope where it was kept. 

Maria Collins in her Auckland home.

Maria Collins in her Auckland home. Photo: Lawrence Smith / Stuff

“So I knew it had to do with Erebus.” 

Today, the break-in at the Collins family home remains unsolved. Police examined the property, but nothing came of it. Over the years, the absence of information has given rise to several conspiracy theories.  

The most immediate was that the culprit was an angry family member of a crash victim.  

At that time, the crash was being looked into by New Zealand’s chief air accident investigator Ron Chippindale.  

Chippindale had sent a copy of his interim report to all parties who he found might have borne some responsibility for the crash - Air New Zealand, Civil Aviation, and the estates of the two pilots - Captain Jim Collins and First Officer Greg Cassin.  

This development had been reported by the media. The theory went that someone was looking for Maria Collins’ copy to see what it said. 

Maria Collins, widow of Captain Jim Collins, was asked about the burglary during the Erebus Royal Commission.

 Maria Collins, widow of Captain Jim Collins, was asked about the burglary during the Erebus Royal Commission. Photo: Auckland Star Historic Collection / Fairfax Media NZ

The more sinister theory was that the burglary was the work of New Zealand’s SIS. In the four months since the crash, the Erebus disaster had taken on a life of its own.  

The safety record of DC10s had come under intense scrutiny. Since the first aircraft rolled off the production line in 1970 there had been no fewer than six crashes, claiming nearly 900 lives.  Erebus was only the third-worst of them.

Captain Jim Collins Mt, Erebus pilot. December 04, 1981. (Photo by Fairfax Media NZ)

Captain Jim Collins was the pilot of the Air New Zealand Flight which crashed into Mount Erebus on 28 November 1979. Photo: Supplied

There were also media reports that there had been something wrong with the navigational computer on the plane.  

This was more dangerous for Air New Zealand. If the airline was guilty of willful misconduct that contributed to the crash, the estates of the dead passengers could sue, for untold millions.  

Air New Zealand’s insurance wouldn’t cover it and the airline didn’t have anything like that sort of cash reserves. 

The SIS entered the theory because in 1980 Air New Zealand was entirely owned by the New Zealand government, so an existential threat to airline would be its problem.  

The shareholding minister was the Finance Minister, also the country’s Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon.  

Muldoon also happened to be Minister for the SIS. RNZ’s chief political correspondent at the time, Richard Griffin, remembers some wild rumours circulating in the press gallery. 

“There was a lot of speculation... Robert Muldoon ... was using the SIS illegally, but who would know.” 

The theory went that Muldoon used spooks to check if Jim Collins had left any briefing documents at home that might have suggested a navigation issue that was Air New Zealand’s fault and that had caused the crash. 

Any such evidence could then be buried, preserving the airline’s reputation and, more importantly, its solvency. It was a long bow to draw. 

Maria Collins' home was broken into on March 29th, 1980. She vividly remembers the date as not only was it her birthday, but it was the first time she'd ventured out for an evening since the Erebus disaster.

 Maria Collins vividly remembers the date as not only was it her birthday, it was the first time she'd ventured out for an evening since the Erebus disaster. Photo: Lawrence Smith / Stuff

“The SIS has standards and they have levels of authority,” Griffin says. 

“They can't be, or they shouldn't be, in any way dictated to by a minister of the Crown. It just doesn't … it's just too le Carre really.” 

Forty years later, the burglary has become part of Erebus lore. A strange subplot that most people know nothing about.  

But it is something of a metaphor for the whole disaster. Instead of being about tragedy, Erebus became about blame. As the case flowed through the courts, it expanded exponentially.  

More and more people and groups were drawn in. The stakes got higher and the arguments got nastier to the point that now, the story of this plane crash - including the burglary of one the pilot’s homes - didn't seem that improbable.  

- You can listen to White Silence on RNZStuff, or via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or any other app using the RSS feed. The episodes will be released daily from Friday, 8 November.

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