November 28, 1979, brought about one of the most devastating airline crashes on record when an Air New Zealand flight carrying 257 passengers crashed into the side of Mount Eberus, Antarctica’s largest mountain. To help retrieve the bodies of the victims, 11 New Zealand police officers went to the site of the crash, not knowing how they would cope with the extreme weather conditions or what the crash site would offer them.
The story unfolds through the words of some of the very police officers themselves, including Stuart Leighton, Peter Rodger, Mark Penn, Gregory Gilpin and Robert Mitchell. The officers recall the events of the Eberus recovery efforts with great detail, allowing viewers the ability to hear their memories of the crash site, whilst at the same time seeing what the officers went through in the reenactments. The clear contrast in technology from the late 1970s is clear throughout the film and lends to the overall desire of the team to find answers, despite having so little to aid them in their efforts.
When the team arrive in Antarctica, they are unprepared for what lays before them. Leighton says: “There’s nothing worse than the fear of the unknown, and we were heading into the unknown.” The harsh and unpredictable weather patterns and isolating landscape of the Antarctic, coupled with the gruesome nature of the crash site itself, proved to be incredibly trying for the team. Knowing that death was not only staring them in the face but was almost taunting them with the harsh conditions, all of the men feared they may never return from the mission.
Leighton goes on to explain how, just as in any police operation involving the deceased, you have to work quickly to dehumanise the scene you are working with so that you are not overwhelmed by the task at hand. This proved to be impossible with the sheer amount of journals, bags, clothing and other personal belongings that were spread out on the crash site. To make the scene more gruesome, the site was littered with debris from the plane itself, intertwined with bodies and severed limbs.
As the men continued to uncover bodies, they found that the victims’ bodies were in various conditions, ranging from fully preserved (thanks to the ice), dismembered and utterly destroyed from the crash. The transition from reenactments to the interviews with each of the participating crew members was truly gripping. In both the reenactments and the interviews, the pain and desperation of the situation was clear on every crew member’s face. The film’s score, which was written by Tom Healy, gives a soothing yet haunting effect to the massive undertaking that occurred at the crash site.
While the officers were clearly instructed that they were operating as a recovery team, not an investigative team, they collected personal effects, including cameras (whose images were successfully developed and used to piece together the crash), journals and jewellery to send back home to the victims’ families. When the team recovers the body of pilot Jim Collins, they also found a black ring binder belonging to the captain which had technical writings inside it. Knowing it would be important, the binder was placed with other personal effects. However, when the team had gone back to look at it later, the binder was missing.
The team was near breaking point when the final body was recovered. Thanks to the perfectly preserved (and chilled) bottles of champagne lying amongst the rubble of the crash, the team had a bit of a send-off, finally letting off steam while having a few drinks and sledging down hills on plastic body bags.
When the team returned home to New Zealand, they were forever changed. Gilpin and Leighton discuss their feelings of loneliness, abandonment and inability to return to life as normal due to the severity of the crash site and the lack of recognition they received upon returning home. While the airline and media put an enormous amount of pressure on the team during the investigation, they were quickly forgotten once the team completed their mission. Additionally, a great amount of controversy surrounded the 1980 crash report submitted by the airline. The recovery team knew that Air New Zealand’s Chief Executive was working hard to maintain the airline’s reputation, and thus found a convenient way to place blame on the plane’s pilot, despite the outstanding evidence to support the fact that they were completely unaware he was going to crash just seconds before impact. It was only in 2007, a full 28 years after the crash, that the 11 New Zealand officers were given special service medals for their efforts in the mission.
While the recovery team went on to have long-standing and successful careers within the New Zealand police force, they were forever changed by their experiences at Mount Erebus. Leighton has never again visited a location where snow is present. Gruesome and awe-inspiring, the contrast between the reenactments, personal memories and actual images from the crash site give a brilliantly honest look at just what happened to the 257 passenger flight that rested on the side of Mount Erebus. Full of mystery, compassion and the overwhelming determination of human spirit, Eberus: Into the Unknown is a must see.