A small but poignant service has been held at Scott Base in Antarctica this afternoon to remember those who died in the Erebus tragedy 34 years ago. Wreaths were laid at a replica memorial koru on a rocky mound overlooking Mt Erebus, the site of New Zealand's worst air disaster. A minute's silence was observed.
Antarctica New Zealand staff gathered in Christchurch around the kiwi flagpole for a minutes silence, looking south towards their colleagues on the white continent.
On November 28, 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 jet crashed into the mountain's northern slopes about 12.50pm during a sightseeing trip. All 237 passengers and 20 crew died.
The crash site is not visible from Antarctica New Zealand's Scott Base, which is only 34 kilometres south of Mt Erebus. A memorial koru was erected near the site in 2010 next to a memorial cross.
Kate Madden, an Air New Zealand corporate travel agent on secondment in Antarctica, told today's gathering of about 25 people, including six United States Antarctic Programme representatives from nearby McMurdo Station, about some touching history of the passengers on the doomed trip.
"Those who held tickets for the flight on the 28th of November came from many walks of life.
"Most were from New Zealand but there were also overseas tourists. Some had been given tickets as presents, two people won them in a draw and one couple bought tickets 20 minutes before the flight departed."
Passengers included 200 New Zealanders, 24 Japanese, 22 Americans, six British, two Canadians and one each from Australia, France and Switzerland.
She said the airline began commercial sightseeing flights to Antarctica in 1977, running 11-hour return flights from Auckland to McMurdo Sound.
"On a clear day, the round trip provided opportunities for viewing Scott Base and the distinctive cone of Mt Erebus, a 3794m active volcano.
"Despite its harsh climate and remote location, it was then feasible to see Antarctica as a tourist and many were drawn to its beautiful frozen landscape and history of exploration."
Crash investigators later found the plane was on the wrong flight path due to a late change to its co-ordinates and was supposed to be flying down McMurdo Sound.
The pilots also faced challenging weather conditions that made it difficult to differentiate the terrain.
During today's service, the continent's harsh environment was evident. The mountain was totally obscured by cloud and cold 15 to 20-knot winds pushed the temperature to minus 15 degrees Celsius.
Father Brian Fennessy, a priest from Timaru and based at McMurdo Station, also spoke at the memorial service, saying the crash on Erebus was a national disaster that all of New Zealand experienced.
Chaplain Brannon Bowman read Psalm 121, which Fennessy said was apt because it was about how mountains were closest to God.
Antarctica New Zealand's Scott Base services manager, Trudie Baker, said Antarctica New Zealand and Air New Zealand joined together four years ago to offer Erebus families an opportunity to visit Antarctica.
The families were able to "see for themselves the magic and beauty of this place that inspired their loved ones to make the very same journey 34 years ago".
The third and final group of about 35 family members is due to head to the icy continent next February.
Baker said Antarctica New Zealand was exploring other opportunities to work alongside each other, both in science and operations.
This year, two Air New Zealand staff were seconded to work at Scott Base and it hoped to send a proving 767 flight to Antarctica this summer to assess whether it could assist Antarctica New Zealand to transport staff and scientists.
The flight had been delayed three times, mainly because of bad weather. If it proceeds, it will be the first Air New Zealand flight to the southern continent since the tragedy and a fresh page in its history.