Here, Eggers (right) receives the New Zealand Special Service Medal from New Zealand Ambassador to the United States Mike Moore, while at a special ceremony in Washington, D.C. on June 14. (Photo submitted)
By Kim Brooks, Express Editor
Thirty-four years ago, Erich Eggers of Monticello found himself in the midst of one of the worst airline crashes in history, the worst in New Zealand history!
On Nov. 28, 1979, Air New Zealand Flight TE-901, a sight-seeing flight, left for Antarctica with 237 passengers on board from all over the world and 20 crewmembers. They were flying over Antarctica to see the wondrous glaciers when whiteout conditions and a change in their flight plan led to a head-on collision with Mount Erebus. All those on board lost their lives.
Eggers joined the U.S. Navy in January of 1978. He was in Antarctica on a training mission from New Zealand at the time, his home base. Eggers was a flight operator. He arrived in Antarctica that October; the crash took place in November, not long after Eggers’ squadron arrived.
“This was my first mission as a 20-year-old in the Navy,” recalled Eggers. “I was the youngest member of the recovery crew.”
Knowing the plane crashed into Mount Erebus going approximately 300 miles per hour, Eggers said they knew it was going to be a recovery mission, dubbed “Operation Overdue.”
As Eggers’ unit was the first to respond to the crash, he said they were the only ones there. Equipped with aircraft and ski equipment, they were able to get to the crash site.
“Timing played a critical role,” Eggers said in the squad being there at the time of the accident.
He explained that when one thinks of whiteout conditions, it’s not like a blizzard where you can’t see in front of you. He said if the sky is overcast in Antarctica, not casting shadows off the mountains, a plane would never know they were about to head into a mountain/glacier.
“Everything just looks white,” said Eggers.
Once at the crash site, their mission was to recover the bodies and get them down the mountainside. Eggers’ squad was also in charge of transporting officials to and from the site. The recovery involved not only U.S. service members like Eggers, but New Zealand service personnel as well. Eggers said they were able to find and recover the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder for the investigation. In all, he said the recovery process took about two weeks. Eggers was on the last flight out, which carried a cross to the crash site.
“The mountain was too steep to land on, so we had to build a landing pad,” Eggers said.
When the recovery ended, Eggers said they were able to identify 213 of the 257 passengers on board. He said when they first arrived on the scene, it was suggested to leave the site much like the Titanic, a mass grave. However, Eggers said there was international pressure to try and recover as many bodies as they could. Eggers said he knew families would want to bury their loved ones in a proper ceremony.
In 2006, 27 years after the worst disaster in Air New Zealand history, the New Zealand Special Service Medal was instituted to recognize the service of those who were involved in the body recovery, crash investigation and victim identification of Operation Overdue. It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago, June 14, that Eggers finally received his medal for his service.
As he explained it, during the investigation, they were only working off of paper records, no data as to who was associated with the recovery.
“They went off of people’s memories,” he said of compiling the list. As luck would have it, his last name was misspelled.
Eggers said he had no clue a medal was even made and presented to the U.S. service members who assisted at the crash site until he was doing some research online one day.
“I found out about the medal online, so I contacted the New Zealand embassy,” he said. The New Zealand defense force issued the medal.
He said he had to send in copies of documents proving his authenticity. Eggers said as a pack rat, he kept all of his military and flight records.
Eggers and his family then traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the medal ceremony. The New Zealand Ambassador to the U.S., Mike Moore, presented him with the medal. Also in attendance were the New Zealand Defense Force, a representative from every branch of the service in New Zealand, a representative from the U.S. Navy and staff members of the embassy.
“There were probably 40 to 45 people there,” Eggers said of the ceremony. “I will probably be the last one to ever receive this medal, too.” Eggers is one of 12 people in the U.S. to ever receive the New Zealand Special Service Medal; he is the only Iowan to receive it.
After the ceremony, Eggers and his family spent time sightseeing in D.C.
In his 20-plus years in the Navy, Eggers said Operation Overdue would always be on his mind. “It’s a good feeling knowing I was able to help bring people home to their loved ones for proper burial,” he said. “It gives families a sense of closure.”
Of receiving the well-deserved medal, Eggers said, “It means a lot.” He said at such a young age when the crash took place, “It was an abrupt initiation into the service.”
To this day, Eggers said no formal cause has been placed on the crash.
As a boy from Iowa, he’s been able to travel the world thanks to his time in the Navy. And now, he’s come back to Monticello, working for the DOT for Northeast Iowa.
Of being on Mount Erebus that day, seeing what he saw, Eggers said he realized he was capable of doing so much more than he ever thought he’d do in his lifetime.