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Goff Speech: Mt Erebus 'time of remembrance'


Mt Erebus 'time of remembrance'

Phil Goff Speech to Mt Erebus memorial service, Scott Base, Antarctica 11.30am, 28 November 2004


Thank you for inviting me to speak today at this memorial service commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Mt Erebus tragedy.

I would like to acknowledge first the families, the friends and the recovery crew members who were involved in that terrible event. I know that even 25 years on, the grief caused by the disaster on Mt Erebus remains in the memories of those affected by it.

Those of us not directly affected by having family members or friends on the plane also remember the huge sense of shock that gripped the country on the day of the crash and the days that followed.

I was in London on my OE and I remember going down to New Zealand House, as hundreds of other New Zealanders living there did, to look at the list of passengers posted at the High Commission. We were a long way from home but united with our fellow New Zealanders by the sense of loss we all felt.

On a clear day Mt Erebus dominates the view from Scott Base. It is still impossible to look at that view without recalling the lives that were lost on the mountain on 28 November, 1979.

The cross erected above Scott Base to commemorate the disaster is a lasting memorial on the ice to those who died.

Antarctica has never been a place that humans could venture towards lightly. Shackleton described exploration there as “the last great journey”. A member of Scott’s expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, wrote of it as “the worst journey in the world”.

Antarctica is an unforgiving place, yet we have a long-standing fascination with it. Its history is steeped in brilliant endeavour as well as human tragedy. The pure natural environment and the stark, inhospitable landscape contribute to the mystique of the great southern continent. For New Zealanders, the vast ice blanket covering the Ross Sea, with Mt Erebus towering above, is an image of Antarctica long present in our imagination.

In Bill Manhire's anthology of literature on Antarctica, which hit the bookshops recently, he writes: "I sometimes think that Antarctica is a kind of psychic territory for New Zealanders. It's akin to the desert interior for Australians: you may not ever go there, but nevertheless it is present in you as part of your inner geography, part of your mental furniture".

Air New Zealand understood the public’s fascination with Antarctica and began sight-seeing flights over the ice in 1977. The 11-hour non-stop flights were very popular.

There were 200 New Zealanders and 57 passengers from seven other nations on board Flight TE901 that took off from Christchurch on 28 November. The DC-10 aircraft crashed on the slopes of Erebus at 12.49 pm, killing everyone on board. It was the world’s fourth-worst aircraft disaster at the time.

The Erebus disaster had a huge impact in a small country like ours. It seemed that everyone knew someone caught up in the tragedy.

Over the years there have been a number of commemorations held. On 22 February 1980, a burial service was held for the 43 unidentified victims. In 1999, 20th anniversary ceremonies took place in New Zealand and in Antarctica. This morning I laid a wreath close by the crash site, and I am pleased to be here at this memorial service.

Not far from here, there is an outcrop called Observation Hill. Here members of Scott’s party in 1912 would scan the horizon in vain for sightings of him and his team returning from the Pole.

There is a cross on top of that hill which carries an inscription that I feel captures the essence of human endeavour in Antarctica, a place where triumph and tragedy are woven together. It reads: “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”.

Twenty-five years after Erebus, as we approach fifty years of continuous New Zealand presence on the frozen continent, we remain committed both to Antarctica, and to honouring the memory of those who have died there.

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