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The Erebus accident

On the morning of 28 November 1979, Air New Zealand flight TE901 left Auckland for a sightseeing flight to Antarctica. At 12.49 p.m. (NZST) the aircraft crashed into Mt Erebus, killing all 257 passengers and crew. Erebus remains the worst civil accident in New Zealand's history, and the scale of loss shocked the nation. The plane was operated by the national carrier, Air New Zealand, which was in full state ownership at the time. The New Zealand Government has committed to constructing a national memorial which acknowledges the loss to the families and the nation.

‘The whole country was in shock really. Everybody knew somebody – their favourite school teacher or somebody they'd worked with. It had such a ripple effect throughout New Zealand. Very few people were left untouched by it.’
– Lizzie Oakes, who lost her grandmother Muriel Harrison in the accident

Erebus families and members of Operation Overdue

The Erebus families and members of Operation Overdue are at the absolute heart of this kaupapa. Manatū Taonga continues to work closely with these groups who have remained incredibly supportive and gracious through the long journey to establish a National Erebus Memorial.

We regularly engage with over 450 people on our Erebus contact lists – 280 of these are Erebus families, and 176 are members of Operation Overdue.

If you are an Erebus family or member of Operation Overdue and want to receive updates, email: [email protected].

The memorial

In 2017, the Government committed to creating a National Erebus Memorial, with Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage leading the project.

The memorial will fulfil the need of the Erebus families to have the effects of the tragedy recognised on a national scale. It will also provide a place for them to remember their loved ones and for all people to gather, remember and reflect on the accident.

Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song was announced as the memorial design in 2019, to be built at Taurarua Dove-Myer Robinson Park in Auckland.

After extreme weather events in January and February 2023, Taurarua Dove-Myer Robinson Park was deemed to no longer be a suitable site. We announced in April 2023 that we would look for a new site for the National Erebus Memorial. The new site will need to be enduring, so present and future generations can visit the memorial, to grieve, reflect and celebrate those who lost their lives on 28 November 1979.

The current preference is for the memorial to remain in Auckland, for these reasons:

  • the largest proportion of the New Zealanders who died in the tragedy were from Auckland
  • many Erebus families continue to live in Auckland
  • the flight departed from the city
  • Auckland is a gateway for international visitors, so having the memorial located there provides easier access for families of the international passengers on the flight, should they wish to visit.

We will continue to work with the families of Erebus victims and members of Operation Overdue, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei and Auckland Council to find a suitable site for the memorial. See our FAQs for more information.

Frequently asked questions

Project updates

Project partners

We have worked closely with our project partners during each stage of establishing the National Erebus Memorial.

We remain committed to all those with an interest in the memorial, and we continue to work closely with Erebus families and members of Operation Overdue, the community around potential sites, iwi, Auckland Council, Studio Pacific Architecture and other key stakeholders. 

Memorial design

A person and a child looking at a wall with names on it
Artist's impression of the National Erebus Memorial design, Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song.

The design concept

Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song was announced as the design for the National Erebus Memorial in April 2019 following a national design competition. It was designed by Studio Pacific Architecture in collaboration with artists Jason O’Hara and Warren Maxwell.

The design of Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song reflects the enormity of the Erebus tragedy while also providing a strong sense of connection and loss.

It encourages visitors to take a journey and engage with all aspects of the tragedy, as the story of what happened on that day unfolds.

Along with sadness and loss, the design also evokes the sense of adventure the crew and passengers are almost sure to have enjoyed as they boarded the flight.

Carefully designed to be a welcoming place for everyone, Sky Song's compelling narrative engages visitors and provides a sanctuary within its walls. On the Ice Wall, visitors can touch the names of the 257 people who died in the accident.

Although Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song was designed to fit with the former proposed memorial site at Auckland’s Taurarua Dove-Myer Robinson Park, the intention is to reuse as many design aspects and elements as possible in a new site.

Watch this video (5 minutes) about Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song, which shows how the memorial design would have appeared in  Dove-Myer Robinson Park.

Remote video URL
Design aspects

Alongside the names are lines from the poem 'Erebus voices', composed by New Zealand poet Bill Manhire for the 25th anniversary of the accident in 2004 and read at the commemoration in Antarctica by Sir Edmund Hillary.

'Erebus voices' (Te Ara)

The opposite stainless-steel Snowflake Wall displays 257 unique snowflake-shaped holes, one for each person on the flight. Each snowflake has been digitally 'grown' using an algorithm that uses the name of each of those who lost their lives as a 'seed'.

Hands holding a silver snowflake

The white concrete and mirrored stainless-steel materials of the memorial design evoke the stark beauty of Antarctica.

The journey culminates in a view out into the open horizon.

The design subtly and powerfully calls on us to remember those who died in this national tragedy.

Selecting the design

Once the Waitematā Local Board had provided its support in principle to locate the memorial in Dove-Myer Robinson Park, a national design competition was held to select the memorial concept for the proposed site.

Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song was chosen from six shortlisted options by an expert panel which included an architect, a landscape architect, an artist and an urban planner, as well as two representatives from the Erebus families.

After it was chosen as the preferred design, Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song was reviewed by Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei and the Auckland Urban Design Panel, as well as the Waitematā Local Board, who were satisfied it met all the criteria and confirmed it as the final design for the National Erebus Memorial.

People sitting and standing on the ramp of the memorial
Artist's impression of the National Erebus Memorial, Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song.

Copyright of the National Erebus Memorial design and Te Paerangi Ataata song belongs to Studio Pacific Architecture Ltd jointly with Jason O’Hara and Warren Maxwell. Permission to reproduce any of the design drawings or other material must be sought from:

 [email protected]

Keyword: Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song design concept
5.33 MB
Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song design concept

Additional resources

Erebus disaster timeline

15 February 1977: First Air New Zealand sightseeing flight to Antarctica

Air New Zealand first considered operating flights to Antarctica in the late 1960s. The addition of the DC-10 to the airline’s fleet in 1973 made such flights possible. It would be a further four years before flights began. Air New Zealand’s flight package proved to be very popular. Passengers enjoyed meals and refreshments, complimentary bar service, in-flight entertainment and expert commentary.

28 November 1979: Erebus disaster

At 12.49 p.m. NZST, one such sightseeing flight, Air New Zealand Flight TE901, crashed into the lower slopes of Mt Erebus killing all 237 passengers and 20 crew on board.

When TE901 failed to arrive at Christchurch on schedule, authorities feared the worst. Search and rescue operations began in Antarctica and at midnight (NZST), aircraft spotted the wreckage. It was the worst civil disaster in New Zealand's history.

29 November–10 December 1979: Operation Overdue: Antarctica

Operation Overdue’s primary objectives were the gathering of evidence, and the recovery of human remains. Ron Chippindale, Chief Air Accident Investigator led the site investigation. Police search and rescue coordinator, Inspector Robert (Bob) Mitchell, led the recovery operation.

By 10 December the site investigation and recovery operation was complete. Disaster Victim Identification teams recovered 114 substantially intact bodies, 133 bags of human remains, and countless personal belongings.

December 1979–22 February 1980: Operation Overdue: New Zealand

Chief Inspector Jim Morgan led the team that carried out the painstaking and traumatic process of victim identification. Post-mortems were completed by 21 December. In the end 213 of the 257 victims were identified. The 44 unidentified bodies were buried in 16 caskets during a joint ceremony at Waikumete Cemetery in West Auckland on 22 February 1980.

31 May–19 June 1980: The Chippindale Report

On 31 May 1980, Ron Chippindale submitted his accident report to Colin McLachlan, the Minister of Transport. The report was made public on 19 June 1980. Chippindale concluded that the ‘probable cause’ of the disaster was pilot error.

July 1980–April 1981: Royal Commission of Inquiry

Justice Peter Mahon’s inquiry began on 7 July. He heard from 52 witnesses over 75 days, accumulating over 3000 pages of evidence, 284 documentary exhibits and 368 pages of closing submissions. The final report released in April 1981 found that Air New Zealand was primarily to blame for the tragedy. Mahon asserted that Air New Zealand had intentionally misled the inquiry through an ‘orchestrated litany of lies’.

December 1981–October 1983: Court action following Erebus disaster inquiry

Air New Zealand successfully challenged Mahon’s findings in the Court of Appeal which ruled he had breached natural justice by not allowing those accused to respond to the allegations and had acted outside his jurisdiction. Mahon resigned from the High Court bench but later appealed to the Privy Council. He lost his appeal in October 1983 but was thanked for his 'brilliant and painstaking investigative work’.

6 November 2006: Recognition of individual contributions during Erebus operation

In 1980 and again in 1982, the New Zealand Police recognised those who had assisted them during Operation Overdue. In 1981, Robert Mitchell and Jim Morgan, who coordinated the operation, were made MBEs in recognition of their work. Greater official recognition did not come until November 2006 with the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus).

23 October 2009: Air New Zealand apology

At the unveiling of the sculpture Momentum, marking significant events in Air New Zealand’s history, Air New Zealand Chief Executive Rob Fyfe apologised to those the airline had let down in the aftermath of the Erebus tragedy. But for many this apology did not go far enough. Maria Collins, the wife of Captain Jim Collins, the pilot of Flight TE901, told the media that she still hoped to clear her husband's name.

2017: Government commits to a National Erebus Memorial

On the 38th anniversary of the Erebus disaster, Prime Minister Rt Hon. Jacinda Ardern announced she would progress a long overdue national memorial.

5 April 2019: Memorial design announced

Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song, by Wellington firm Studio Pacific Architecture in collaboration with artists Jason O’Hara and Warren Maxwell, is selected as the design for the National Erebus Memorial to the 257 Erebus victims, to be built at Taurarua Dove-Myer Robinson Park in Auckland.

28 November 2019: Government apology

Prime Minister Rt Hon. Jacinda Ardern, at a private ceremony marking 40 years since the disaster, said that ‘the time has come to apologise for the actions of an airline then in full state ownership, which ultimately caused the loss of the aircraft and the loss of those you loved.’ Air New Zealand Board Chair Dame Therese Walsh also gave a fulsome apology. Taurarua Dove-Myer Robinson Park was announced as the proposed site for a national memorial to the 257 Erebus victims.

2023: Ministry seeks new, enduring site for memorial

Extreme weather events in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland in February 2023 results in significant damage to the coastline near original memorial site Dove Myer Robinson Park. Secretary and Chief Executive for Culture and Heritage, Leauanae Laulu Mac Leauanae makes the decision to seek a new enduring home for the memorial. Government reiterates its absolute commitment to securing an enduring site for the memorial, for present and future generations.

For more detailed information of the Erebus disaster visit our NZ History website.

Erebus disaster (NZHistory)

External links