It may seem like a fairly innocuous gesture, but apologizing for an accident 30 years ago was a really big deal for New Zealanders.
On Nov. 28 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica during a sightseeing flight, killing all 257 on board. This remains one of the biggest disasters in New Zealand history, and pretty much everyone over the age of 30 knows exactly what you mean if you mention “Erebus.”
I was only 10 at the time, but I can still remember the period of national mourning. As New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said last week, it seemed like “everyone knew someone who knew someone who was on board.”
The aftermath of the crash was years of recriminations and high-profile commissions and investigations. Many people felt the airline had been too defensive and had not done nearly enough for the families of the deceased. Debate has never really stopped about who was to blame for the crash. Pilot error was initially identified, but then another investigating commission accused the carrier of covering up its own mistakes. This recent story from the New Zealand Herald takes a fresh look at this debate.
A couple of things have dragged all of the Erebus bad feelings into the limelight again. Last year’s fatal crash of an Air New Zealand Airbus A320 near Perpignan, France, occurred on the 29th anniversary of Erebus. And now, the milestone of the 30th anniversary of the 1978 accident is approaching.
During a much-publicized speech on Oct. 23, Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe made a point of finally saying “sorry” and admitting the airline let people down in its handling of the incident. They are only words, but necessary and long-overdue words nonetheless. More importantly, after the Perpignan crash the airline proved that it is much better prepared to handle catastrophic events like this.
Here is a link to a video of Fyfe’s speech, at the unveiling of a memorial to the Erebus and Perpignan at the airline’s Auckland headquarters. The prime minister attended, as did family members of the Erebus and Perpignan crashes.