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Mount Erebus
Photo Credit: Christopher Dean/Antarctic Photo Library
Mount Erebus, where Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed nearly 30 years ago. New Zealand recently honored the Americans who assisted in the recovery of the bodies with a ceremony in Washington, D.C. and the presentation of a special medal.

Erebus medals

Americans honored for role in New Zealand air tragedy 30 years ago

Dave Bresnahan was the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site  representative at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site on Nov. 28, 1979 when the unthinkable happened.

Air New Zealand Flight 901, an Antarctic sightseeing plane out of Auckland, had lost radio contact at about 1 p.m. Twelve hours later, not long after midnight on Nov. 29, a U.S. Navy plane spotted debris on the lower slopes of Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Ross Island.

Flight 901 had crashed into the side of the volcano and disintegrated. All 257 passengers and crew died, making it the worst national disaster in New Zealand history. [See Erebus Disaster on New Zealand History online External Non-U.S. government site.]

“My role in the response to the tragic event was small compared to others,” said Bresnahan, who retired from the NSF in 2007 after 40 years in the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site.

“I didn’t have difficulty recalling the event at the ceremony,” he added. “The time that it was difficult was the [25th] anniversary held at Scott Base. Someone discovered I had been the NSF rep during the crash and was at McMurdo again 25 years later … Speaking that day at the ceremony at Scott Base was very difficult.”

Bresnahan was one of 15 Americans recognized by the New Zealand government for their involvement nearly 30 years ago in the recovery of the Flight 901 victims and the crash investigation during a ceremony on June 5 at the New Zealand embassy in Washington, D.C.

The Erebus Medal
Erebus Medal
Photo Courtesy: NZ Embassy
Erebus Medal
The ribbon is 32 mm in width and is composed of seven vertical stripes: dark blue, light (or astral) blue, white, black, white, light (or astral) blue, and dark blue. Dark blue alludes to the sea that surrounds Antarctica, and also alludes to the New Zealand Police who were involved with the recovery and identification of bodies. Light (or astral) blue alludes to the sky and to Air New Zealand. White alludes to the ice and snow of Antarctica. Black alludes to the aircraft disaster (the aircraft crash on the slopes of Mount Erebus left a black streak across the polar ice). Black and white are also regarded as the national colors of New Zealand.

All of those Americans in attendance received the New Zealand Special Services Medal (Erebus) External Non-U.S. government site, a medal instituted in November 2006 to recognize the New Zealanders and citizens of the United States and other countries who helped with Operation Overdue, the mission to recover and identify the remains of the Erebus victims. (One recipient was the son of a participant who had passed away.)

Angela Gore, spokesperson for the New Zealand embassy in Washington External Non-U.S. government site, said of the motivation behind the awards ceremony: “It was about time that there was some recognition for the courage and bravery of those people who did undertake the recovery.

“The New Zealand Defence Force External Non-U.S. government site have been trying to track down some of these people, and they haven’t been very easy to find,” she added. A total of 40 Americans are eligible to receive a medal, Gore said, and the New Zealand government, working from leads supplied by the U.S. Navy, is still tracking down potential recipients. A further 10 medals will be presented or issued separately this year. 

“Honestly, not all of them were interested. Some of them are still fairly stressed from what they went through on the Ice, but we think it’s only fitting we present them with the medals to show how much we appreciate their service,” Gore said.

Mark Penn, a uniformed New Zealand police sergeant in November 1979 who was sent south to help in Operation Overdue with a contingent of New Zealand police personnel, spoke in candid detail about the difficult, two-week operation on Mount Erebus.

“The surrounding area looked like a ploughed paddock in snow,” Penn said during the medal ceremony. “Everything had been ground up, with the look of paper-mâché, and dispersed among this were human bodies and pieces of bodies. It was a grim scene.”

The accident occurred the day before the 50th anniversary of Adm. Richard E. Byrd’s historic flight over the South Pole. A number of dignitaries were in McMurdo to celebrate the achievement. Bresnahan had been escorting the group around the station on Nov. 28, slipping away when possible to check on the status of the Navy search and rescue.

Word finally came about 1 a.m. on Nov 29 that the wreckage had been found and there were no apparent survivors.

More on the Erebus Disaster
Antarctic Sun coverage of the 20th anniversary of the disaster:
The Antarctic Sun, Nov. 28, 1999 Link to PDF file
Nationalities of the victims:

200 - New Zealand
24 - Japan
22 - U.S.
6 - U.K.
2 - Canada
1 - Australia
1 - France
1 - Switzerland

“It is hard for those that have not been through something like this, but I still remember that it was a great relief to all concerned when we heard confirmation that no one survived the impact of the crash. It was a long and frustrating day searching for the plane, not knowing if there was anyone out there that needed help,” he recalled. 

“I clearly remember walking back from [the communications building] early in the morning the day following the crash,” he added. “It was calm and quiet. Many people were up and watched me walking back to my quarters. No one said a word. Everyone knew.”

Billy-Ace Penguin Baker is a retired Navy radioman who was at McMurdo that season. He provided communications support during the SAR and subsequent recovery operation. Before the New Zealand police arrived, it appeared the Navy would play an even bigger role in the operation, Baker recalled.

“It was pretty shocking,” said Baker, who did not receive a medal. “Our medical department ordered all of the chief petty officers into the galley. We were going to be used for the triage. … Fortunately, we didn’t have to do that. The people from New Zealand came in and did that.”

Penn was the last searcher to leave the crash site. He offered great praise for the help supplied by the Americans who worked alongside the Kiwis.

“The support that you Americans, both U.S. Navy personnel and civilians, gave us was simply magnificent, and we could not have carried out our part of this operation without your help,” he said. “Speaking personally, I know that those of you who worked with us to the point of exhaustion at the crash site toiled under those trying conditions without complaint.”

Most of those Americans eligible for the medal were U.S. Navy personnel, which handled most of the logistics for the U.S. Antarctic Program from the 1950s to the 1990s, when civilian contractors took over most science-support duties from the military. New Zealand’s Scott Base External Non-U.S. government site is located only a few kilometers from McMurdo Station.

The cause of the accident is still debated, though whiteout conditions and alterations to the flight plan likely contributed to the crash. The remains of Flight 901 were found a scant 445 meters above sea level on Erebus, which dominates Ross Island at nearly 3,800 meters with its ever-present plume of volcanic smoke.

Amazingly, the search and rescue party positively identified 213 victims during the recovery operation. The remains of the 44 unidentified people are buried together in Waikumete cemetery in west Auckland.

New Zealand Ambassador to the United States Roy Ferguson said the date of Nov. 28, 1979 may not loom large in the global consciousness, but every New Zealander still remembers where he or she was that day. And New Zealand remembers those who helped salve the wounds of the national tragedy.

“The efforts and conditions that these individuals endured far exceeded the boundaries of what could be expected in a search and rescue operation,” he said. “The work was not only a danger to them but traumatic and exhausting.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs