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White Silence: New Zealand Mt Erebus disaster



This story is part of a six-part podcast series from White Silence and RNZ to mark the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster. You can listen to White Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or any other app using the RSS feed. The episodes will be released daily from Friday, November 8.

In a strange way, losing her husband was the worst part of the Erebus disaster for Maria Collins.

Of course, it was the worst part. Jim and Maria Collins had been together for nearly 20 years when Jim was killed on November 28, 1979.

They had four daughters and a life together. And one day Jim was suddenly gone. The strange part was that of a trauma of losing a husband and father.

Like the families of the 256 other victims, the family grieved, but they had to worry about something else as well.

READ MORE:
White Silence: A six-part podcast series
Erebus: Air New Zealand's greatest tragedy
* The bizarre Erebus burglary – 'hardly anything was missing'
* Remembering the victims of Erebus

Maria Collins, widow of Captain Jim Collins, during the Erebus Commission of Inquiry November, 1980.

AUCKLAND STAR HISTORIC COLLECTION

Maria Collins, widow of Captain Jim Collins, during the Erebus Commission of Inquiry November, 1980.

Jim Collins was the captain of Air New Zealand flight TE901 when it crashed into the slopes of Mount Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 people on board. He was the man in charge during the deadliest disaster in New Zealand's history.

"When I first heard I thought 'And what will the world think of us?'," Said Maria Collins.

"If you hear bad news and you know Jim's charge I thought, 'What could he have been doing? How could he have made a mistake?'"

The day of the crash, Maria Collins was at home in the Auckland suburb of St Heliers. She has a call from Air New Zealand about 8pm. Soon, every living room started filling up with people.

"I thought this wasn't real. But I can't fall apart. The older two are 15 and 14. They're smart enough to know."

On the day of the crash, Maria Collins was at home in the Auckland suburb of St Heliers.

LAWRENCE SMITH / STUFF

On the day of the crash, Maria Collins was at home in the Auckland suburb of St Heliers.

About 1am, the phone rang again. The wreckage had been found. There were no survivors.

"When you're in that situation you sort of feel as if it's a telescope out there, it's all from afar and it really doesn't affect me. And I'm used to the bed, you know, half empty. crazy, but crazy, but because of a long flight … that's how it felt. "

Maria Collins got on with life. The children had school. Christmas was only a few weeks away.

Meanwhile, the crash of the plane in which every husband had been piloting was under investigation. The flight data recorders (black boxes) had been recovered from the wreckage.

Soon investigators would know exactly what happened in the cockpit before the crash. One day in December 1979, Maria Collins got a visit from Ron Chippindale, the chief air accident investigator.

Chippindale wanted to see an atlas Jim Collins. There was a chance he'd written crucial information in his flight path.

"He said 'Where's that atlas?' And I said, 'Well, Jim took it with him.'

He said, 'He didn't.' I said, 'He did'. I said, 'I can get you a copy, one of my neighbors has one.' [Chippindale said] 'No, I want to see Jim's atlas that your parents gave him.'

Jim Collins was the captain of Air New Zealand flight TE901 when it crashed into the slopes of Mount Erebus.

Supplied

Jim Collins was the captain of Air New Zealand flight TE901 when it crashed into the slopes of Mount Erebus.

And I said, 'Well, it's with him, so it's lost. I don't have it. ' Well, he didn't believe me and he thought I was shielding Jim by not showing it to him.

"So when Chippindale left here, you just know he's going for the pilot-error theory."

In March 1980, Maria Collins got a copy of Chippindale's draft report on the crash. The draft was sent to all parties. As in, those who might bear some responsibility for the crash.

"The probable cause of this accident is the decision of the world." horizon definition when the crew was not able to detect the rising terrain which intercepted the aircraft's flight path.

The scene on Mt Erebus was a navy pilot. The pilot broke news of the discovery of the DC10 wreckage with a dramatic radio message to McMurdo base.

Supplied

The scene on Mt Erebus was a navy pilot. The pilot broke news of the discovery of the DC10 wreckage with a dramatic radio message to McMurdo base.

In other words, the crash was Jim Collins' fault.

Maria Collins still has the newspaper's clippings from the time: Cockpit confusion … Captain's decision probable cause of tragedy.

"When you see the pilot written in the headlines," she said, "It's pretty bad.

Remember Remember, at that time, you're in New Zealand. Days

It was Maria Collins' lowest moment. Every husband was to blame for New Zealand's worst disaster. Soon after the report was released, she went to see every lawyer, Paul Davison, who would represent Jim Collins' estate at the upcoming royal commission of inquiry into Erebus. She was truly sobbed during the saga.

The Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, Ron Chippendale, before departure to Antarctica.

PRESS HISTORIC COLLECTION

The Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, Ron Chippendale, before departure to Antarctica.

"I said, 'What happens now? Am I married to a murderer?

"He said, 'You've got to be patient, Maria. There's more to this than meets the eye.'"

Today, Maria Collins still lives in the same house in St Heliers. She is 84 years old. Erebus disaster, another report was released exonerating him. Debate over what, or who, was responsible for the crash. Maria Collins is at peace with it all.

There There will be a few naysayers, she she said, But but I think the majority of Mrs and Mrs Nobodies like the rest of the air.

STUFF

Maria Collins, the wife of captain Jim Collins, recounts the moment she was told about the Erebus disaster.

In many ways, Margarita Mahon's husband has been associated with the Erebus disaster from Captain Jim Collins. Justice Peter Mahon chaired the royal commission of inquiry into the crash in 1980-81.

It was Air New Zealand's fault, after a series of disastrous mistakes and oversights. Air New Zealand tried to cover this up at the commission, said Mahon, and see that the pilots shouldered the blame.

He rejected the airline's case in one of New Zealand's most enduring soundbites: "An orchestrated litany of lies."

Mahon didn't know it, but it was the beginning of the end. An apoplectic Air New Zealand fought the findings in court and won. Famous soundbite – basically all Mahon's conspiracy conclusions against the airline – was thrown out.

Five years after his infamous report, Peter Mahon was dead. His widow Margarita Mahon is adamant the Erebus case shortened his life.

LAWRENCE SMITH / STUFF

Five years after his infamous report, Peter Mahon was dead. His widow Margarita Mahon is adamant the Erebus case shortened his life.

"From that moment it was mad, really, as if the whole world went on," said Margarita Mahon.

"The phone never stopped, and the notes never stopped. There were flowers left on the door."

Peter Mahon, a reserved, conservative man, was an unlikely people's champion. The public was believed to have been spoken out (Air New Zealand was wholly owned by the Crown in those days) and been punished for it. But in the legal and aviation fraternities, not everyone was sure that the crash was even covered.

It was the Court of Appeal that had struck down the most controversial parts of Mahon's report. Two justices in particular –Owen Woodhouse and Duncan McMullin – were scathing in their criticism, inferring that Mahon was incapable of doing his job. Mahon was deeply hurt. He's shocked the country, and his wife, by resigning.

Justice Peter Mahon chaired the royal commission of inquiry into the crash.

AUCKLAND STAR HISTORIC COLLECTION

Justice Peter Mahon chaired the royal commission of inquiry into the crash.

"He didn't discuss it with me," said Margarita Mahon.

"I thought [he] should have just a moment, just a moment. Not necessarily a resign, but just a little talk and think about it. But really it was all that pressure. So that's what you call it, heart failure. "

Five years after his infamous report, Peter Mahon was dead, aged 62. His widow is adamant Erebus shortened his life.

"It's a whole slice of life. It's a whole slice of life. [their daughter] Janet. Awful for her… [It] had a very bad effect on [son] Team. [Son] Sam is lesser because he was away from a bit … And I've just lived with it, I suppose.

White Silence is a podcast from Stuff and Radio NZ on the Erebus disaster, Air New Zealand's darkest hour.

SUNGMI KIM / STUFF

White Silence is a podcast from Stuff and Radio NZ on the Erebus disaster, Air New Zealand's darkest hour.

Today, Margarita Mahon is 91. She lives in a village in Auckland full of archives and mementoes from her husband. The glasses he wore at the royal commission. His 1986 diary, complete with appointments he would never keep. Condolence letters from friends and colleagues after his death. One was Lloyd Brown, QC, one of Peter Mahon's closest friends, who represented Air at the Erebus inquiry. The pair never spoke again afterwards.

"That was a great sadness to Peter," Margarita said, "He was really, really hurt."

Every husband was never bitter about what happened, she said, until close to the end of his life, which brought some perspective. He'd done what he thought was right. He knew it would be controversial, but had no idea how much of a pariah it would make him. Margarita Mahon has a different word for it.

"Regret," she said, "Tremendous regret."

Peter Mahon views a DC10 flight simulator during the Erebus crash.

PRESS HISTORIC COLLECTION

Peter Mahon views a DC10 flight simulator during the Erebus crash.

"Woodhouse and McMullin. But they didn't happen to our lives. Without realizing the depth and extension of their actions."

Peter Mahon grew up in Christchurch during the Depression. His father managed a general store just out of the city. Every so often, the company would send someone to check up. One day, one of these people showed his father a shady bookkeeping trick that could make things easier.

"And he said, 'No,'" Margarita Mahon said, "'I won't do it.' And he lost his job. "

Not long before Peter Mahon died, his sisters came to visit him in Auckland. As they were leaving, one sister turned to Margarita and recalled the general store story.

"[She] said, 'It seems like history repeating itself.' Wasn't it funny that both of them stood up in what they believed? His father stood by Peter Stood. Truth to power. Truth to power. "

You can listen to White Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or any other app using the RSS feed. The episodes will be released daily from Friday, November 8.


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