Erebus memorial a ‘huge relief’ for victims’ families despite local opposition

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After four decades of personal grief deepened by public controversy, the families of Mt Erebus crash victims will finally have a national memorial honouring their loved ones who died in the tragedy.

Proposed Erebus memorial design

Proposed Erebus memorial design Photo: Ministry of Culture and Heritage

Yesterday, a memorial which received both strong support and vehement opposition, was given the go-ahead by local government.

Waitematā Local Board voted four to three in favour of granting landowner consent for the memorial, planned for Dove-Myer Robinson Park in Parnell after nearly six hours of debate and hearing 16 speakers in the public forum.

The memorial, dubbed Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song, will recognise the country’s worst peacetime disaster when Air New Zealand flight 901 crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica on 28 November, 1979.

All 257 people on board were killed, leaving their families and an entire nation bereft.

The plans were supported by a number of Erebus families, but it also faced opposition from nearby residents.

They said the memorial was too large for the park, would damage a nearby pōhutukawa tree and would be out of place in the greenspace that people use for relaxation and recreation.

The proposal was non-notifed, meaning public feedback was not initially sought on the proposal.

Yesterday’s meeting drew a vocal crowd and extra seats were needed to cater for people in the public gallery. People heckled and loudly scoffed, and tears were shed by speakers on both sides of the fence.

Among those at the meeting was Parnell resident Kathryn Carter. Now in her fifties, she was 15 when her father, pilot Jim Collins, died on Erebus.

Speaking after the decision was made, she said the family was thrilled with the outcome.

“We’ve had to wait 40 years for an airline and government apology for the accident, and the promise of a memorial. To have the memorial issue to become a debate again has been extremely traumatic for us.”

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Carter said the memorial would finally provide a set place to remember those who lost their lives.

“For the first time in our history, there will be a place where their names can be together. [It will also provide a space] to remember the lessons of Erebus, such as the fact that flying is safer as a result of their loss.

“The loss came at a great price, but at least its come with better outcomes for [airplane travel].”

Dan Moloney, also at the meeting, lost his father Nick Moloney, a flight engineer in the crash.

He told RNZ the decision was a “huge relief”.

“I’m extremely happy, I couldn’t be more pleased. I didn’t go in there thinking we were going to get landowner approval. I had to come outside [of the meeting room] and sit down – I just couldn’t handle the pressure.”

Site selection

In 2018, Auckland Council provided five possible sites for the memorial and passed these on to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

Later that year, Parnell’s Dove-Myer Robinson park was picked by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage as the site for the the memorial, due to it’s central, accessible and park-like location.

According to the Ministry, feedback from the Erebus families showed a “clear preference for a peaceful park-like setting.”

In September 2019, the local board opened the proposal up to community feedback following resident opposition of the plans.

The council received 953 submissions from people and groups on the proposed memorial. Of these, 58 submitters had entered feedback more than once and were discounted. One of the submissions included a petition with 604 signatures opposing the proposed memorial.

Parnell resident Jo Malcolm, whose husband lost his father in the Erebus crash, was one of the residents spearheading the opposition to the memorial in Dove Myer-Robinson Park.

Malcolm declined to speak to RNZ after the decision, but during the meeting she told the local board her family had lived next door to the park for nearly 20 years and said it was a “vibrant, noisy, happy place that as a community we all treasure”.

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“This is where our kids play. It is where we picnic, celebrate, love and laugh. For many of us, this is our only garden. As a family we would visit a memorial perhaps once a year, but as local residents we use this every single day.”

She said a wide variety of people were opposed to the plans.

“Those of us who oppose this are not nimbys, we are not a small handful of locals… we are not awful, unkind, uncaring people and we are not averse to change. We are progressive and determined to protect this land for the future.

“This city will get larger and bigger, with increasing needs for the community to have shared open spaces.”

She said the memorial was out of place in the park and that the Ministry of Heritage and Culture ignored a Boffa Miskill report that said the park was not ideal for the memorial.

“This Ministry has taken the Erebus families desire for a quiet space to gather and grieve and transformed it into a monstrous dominant structure the size of a house … it is entirely out of place on this precious and historic land.”

Ministry of Heritage and Culture chief executive, Bernadette Cavanaugh, said there have been calls for a memorial to those who died in the crash for years.

She said the design had been through a thorough process involving multiple different agencies. The memorial design was reviewed by the Auckland Urban Design Panel.

It was later granted council resource consent by an independent commissioner Ian Munro, and Heritage New Zealand has given the project the tick of approval following an archaeological assessment.

Mana whenua Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei have also given the project their blessing.

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Studio Pacific Architecture designed the memorial, in collaboration with artist Jason O’Hara and musician Warren Maxwell.

Family members’ feedback taken onboard

Studio Pacific founding director Nick Barratt-Boyes said the feedback of family members was taken into account from the outset.

He said the design could not be shifted to another site and the team had made numerous modifications to the design in response to community feedback, including the location of the memorial and the layout of the path.

Waitematā Board chair Richard Northey voted in favour of the memorial.

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Richard Northey Photo: Supplied

He said the community consultation should have taken place in the first instance.

“The board is sharply critical of the failure to have this publicly notified. That would have respected the opportunity for the community and knowledgeable people to talk face to face with the commissioners about this.”

From here, the Waitematā Local Board will issue the Ministry for Culture and Heritage an approval letter with conditions that mitigate any detrimental effects on the park.

On its website, the Ministry said “construction of the National Erebus Memorial will begin once all the necessary approvals and consents are in place.”

It expected construction would take about six months.

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