New Zealanders mark 30-year-old air tragedy

AP News
Posted: Nov 27, 2009 11:15 PM

About 70 New Zealanders stood in silence in the Antarctic snow Saturday to remember 257 people who perished 30 years earlier when an airplane smashed into a nearby mountain in New Zealand's worst air disaster.

After a commemorative service at New Zealand's Scott Base science station on the northern Antarctic coast, the group went out into the subzero snow-covered landscape for a short vigil to mark the moment the crash occurred.

All passengers and crew on the Air New Zealand airliner were killed when it slammed into Mount Erebus on Nov. 28, 1979.

Among those attending Saturday's vigil were six members of victims' families, flown there by national carrier Air New Zealand. Also present were staff members from the nearby U.S. Antarctic science base, McMurdo Station, some of whom took part in the 1979 search that found the wreckage.

A commission of inquiry into the disaster found airline staff had mistakenly changed the flight path in the plane's navigation computer by 27 miles (43 kilometers). The new setting flew the Boeing DC-10 airliner directly into the 12,400-foot (3,700-meter) volcano.

The commission found that Air New Zealand had covered up the navigation change error and accused it of telling "an orchestrated litany of lies" to protect itself. The airline strongly rejected the allegation.

At Scott Base and at separate commemorative services in the New Zealand cities of Auckland and Christchurch, airline officials apologized for the company's lack of support and compassion for victims' families following the crash.

Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe, flight attendants and pilots attended a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial garden at Auckland Airport.

Archdeacon Glynn Cardy told a public memorial service that the loss of the flight and the 257 people on board had "seared itself on the consciousness of our nation." He said the airline "did not open its heart" to grieving families at the time, but its recent apology had changed that.

Senior government ministers took part in the New Zealand commemorative services.

Also remembered were five Air New Zealand flight crew and two German pilots who lost their lives when an Air New Zealand Airbus plane crashed in the south of France a year ago Saturday.