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Remembering the Erebus disaster: 42 years on

Media release: 28 November 2021

Today, Sunday 28 November, marks the 42nd anniversary of the Erebus disaster, which remains New Zealand’s worst civil accident and resulted in the loss of 257 lives.

"As work is set to get underway on the new national memorial honouring those who died in the accident, today represents an opportunity to acknowledge the many friends and family members who lost their loved ones that day, and to reflect back on the event itself," says Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage Tumu Whakarae Chief Executive Bernadette Cavanagh.

"On the morning of 28 November 1979, Air New Zealand flight TE901 left Auckland for an 11-hour sightseeing flight to Antarctica. There were 237 passengers onboard, and 20 crew members. As well as the many New Zealanders on the flight, there were around sixty international passengers from the United States, Japan, Britain, Canada, France, Switzerland and Australia.

"They were excited to be embarking on what was billed as an ‘experience of a lifetime’, but instead, as many older New Zealanders will remember, the flight ended in tragedy. Shortly after the flight arrived in Antarctica, radio communications went silent. Concerns grew as it became apparent that, as the evening wore on, the plane would have run out of fuel. In the early hours of the next morning, it was confirmed that wreckage of the aircraft had been sighted on Mt Erebus, with no sign of survivors.

"The sheer scale of the Erebus accident shocked the nation and had ramifications here and abroad," says Bernadette Cavanagh.

"At the time, it was the fourth worst aviation accident in the world, so it had a tremendous effect on New Zealand. As is often remarked, everybody knew somebody who was affected.

"The ongoing controversy surrounding the cause of the accident made the experience particularly harrowing for those who had lost their loved ones.

"Erebus remains an event in New Zealand’s modern history where issues of transparency and integrity have been widely scrutinised by the public and, in recent years, the New Zealand government has taken steps to address the unresolved legacy of the accident.

"In 2019, on the 40th anniversary, Prime Minister Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern and Dame Therese Walsh, chair of Air New Zealand, made a formal apology to the families for the accident and how they were treated in the aftermath. The new National Erebus Memorial, Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song, is also due to be completed in 2022," said Bernadette Cavanagh. 

Online resources available to learn more about the accident and the effect it had on New Zealand, including:

NZ History, New Zealand History Online, Erebus disaster

Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Air crashes

New Zealand Air Plane Pilots’ Association Erebus website (contains information and resources including images and film footage)

National Erebus Memorial website

Updated on 29th November 2021