Real Life

40 years on from the Erebus disaster: We revisit the story of Maria Collins, the pilot's widow

Maria Collins, the widow of Captain Jim Collins who piloted flight TE901, said clearing her husband's name came as a hollow victory.

By Robyn Langwell
When Maria Collins' husband left for work on the morning of November 28, 1979, he was in a great mood – he was excited.
What lay ahead of the 45-year-old wasn't his typical day on the job and he was, no doubt, looking forward to telling his young family all about what he had seen when he returned home for tea that night.
An experienced pilot of more than 20 years, Captain Jim Collins was flying flight TE901 from Auckland Airport to Antarctica for an 11-hour return sightseeing trip – his first time to the continent.
It is a day now forever known as one of New Zealand's most tragic – a day when 257 lives were lost on the lower slopes of Mount Erebus.This week, we remember those who perished in the disaster, as well as recognising the countless lives that were forever changed.
First, we go back in time to May 18, 1981.
Eighteen months had passed since Maria got a phone call that made her blood run cold, when Captain Dave Eden, the director of flight operations at Air New Zealand called to let her know they were getting concerned about Jim's flight.
"We haven't heard from him for a while. Are you on your own?" he asked.By 9pm, hope had all but disappeared as she watched broadcaster Philip Sherry say the aircraft had by now run out of fuel and there was still no sign of it.
What came next was a living nightmare for Maria, who opened up to the Weekly about the aftermath of our worst aviation disaster in history.
Maria first shared her story with the Weekly in 1981.
For the widow of Captain Jim Collins the distress of the past 18 months – during which with other crew relatives she feels she has had to shoulder the brunt of the blame for the Mount Erebus disaster – has been eased by the "hollow victory" of the Royal Commission report.
"It should never have happened, it was such an incredible waste. I just feel so angry, sad and grieved at the futility of it all…"
With these carefully chosen words Maria Collins wraps up the last 17 months of her life – a period of agony that she never wants to endure again.
Maria (46) – with short, salt and pepper hair, in a T-shirt and skirt – is the woman Jim left behind when he and 256 other people perished on Mount Erebus on November 28, 1979.
Her husband may be dead – Maria has had to come to terms with that over the past year and a half – but the political post-mortems go on.
On a Monday morning in late April Maria got a longed-for telephone call from her lawyer.
He read her Section 394 of the Royal Commission report into the Erebus disaster in which Mr Justice Peter Mahon says, "In my opinion, neither Captain Collins nor First Officer Cassin, nor the flight engineers made any error which contributed to the disaster and were not responsible for its occurrence."
"I burst into tears and all I could think was that the whole thing was so unnecessary and senseless – the disaster, the aftermath, the cost in lives. To think that a great big aircraft with the most sophisticated equipment was smashed to pieces on a mountain because of a ridiculous (but not wilful) error.
"That report was a victory… a victory I had longed for," says Maria with a weak smile. "But what a hollow victory.
"On the one hand it cleared Jim's good name but on the other hand, so what – it will never bring him back.
"There are no prison gates that they can open, as they did for Arthur Allan Thomas, and there is no large restitution cheque to help heal the scars – there's just a very large and painful gap in our lives."
Jim had been flying for New Zealand airlines for more than 20 years when he was assigned to his first Antarctic flight that fateful November.
Maria was a 26-year-old science graduate working as a biochemistry technician, when she met her dark-haired husband-to-be in 1961.
Jim had joined the Air Force in 1951 at 17 as an air frame mechanic. He learnt to fly in 1954 and served until 1958, when he left to join Teal (much later to become Air New Zealand).
The couple met through one of Maria's workmates, were married in February 1962 and had four daughters.
"Early on I was always scared of Jim having an accident," says Maria ironically.
"But he squashed all my fears by getting out the statistics to prove that you had more chance of being killed in a car than in a plane.
"I never worried after that."
Jim had been flying for New Zealand airlines for more than 20 years when he was assigned to his first Antarctic flight that fateful November; the excitement of the job hadn't yet worn off.
"He was terribly excited that last morning. He was thrilled to be going to an area that had interested him for years. He had been studying the flight and the area and was looking forward to sharing it with his passengers," remembers Maria.
"I am absolutely sure that he would have been enjoying the flight. I have thought long and hard about how he might have died. I hope that he was not in mental torment, and I don't think he was.
"I am told his voice was absolutely calm on the voice recorder. His last command had a 'please' attached to it. There was no anguish in his voice and I don't believe he even knew they were about to hit a mountain.
"I am satisfied in my own mind that he died in peace – that is some small comfort. God knows there hasn't been a lot of comfort about this whole tragic scenario."
Maria is an angry woman and no-one would deny her that right. But her anger is tempered with grief and the knowledge that life must go on.
"My anger is that I have no husband and my children have no father … but nothing can change that.
"There has been so much bitterness about this whole disaster, so much acid written and I don't want to add more."
The anger she allows herself is directed at those within the airline who she says allowed her and other crew relatives to carry the brunt of the blame for the disaster alone.
"The company has been very good to me in a material sense, but the truth would have helped me more."
Although airline heads knew within a short time there had been an error in the co-ordinates fed into the computer on flight 901, it took Maria four months
to find that fact out.
"They should have told me," she says. "They owed me the truth. They let us cop the full brunt of the blame.
"We agonised over this whole hideous thing – as if it was all Jim's fault. They made it sound as if he had gone for a sight-seeing joyride in cloudy conditions, got down too low, then crashed into a mountain.
"It's very hard to forgive them for that…"
Maria (far right) and Jim's daughters (from left) Kathryn, Philippa, Elizabeth and Adrienne in 1981.
Maria admits that initially she was prepared to accept the Erebus accident could have been caused by pilot error."My husband was only human, like everybody else. I was prepared to accept that in extraordinary circumstances he might have made a fatal mistake – but when they wrote it off as just a careless error that he had made, I wouldn't have it.
"I felt physically sick at what they were trying to do – that's when I started to fight."
The fight included seeking legal counsel from Auckland lawyer Paul Davison and a year-long battle of legal and political wits to find the truth.
The final legal bill came to $61,709 (now to be paid by Air New Zealand, by order of the Royal Commission) but Maria was prepared from the outset
to pay for it herself.
"It wasn't a matter of money − it was a matter of truth, honesty and the integrity of a good man."
Maria owes a huge debt of thanks to her young lawyer – "who gave not only his work time but weekends as well" – and to Mr Justice Mahon.
"Without a judge of that calibre the truth might never have been known."
The Royal Commission report, says Maria, would make a best-selling novel "if it wasn't painfully, horribly true.
"My greatest sadness is that the wrangle appears to continue. Why can't they just let it rest? It is dead and gone."They can't harm Jim any further – his name is in the clear. They will just cause more heartache."
With the truth behind her and "a certain sort of peace" established in her life – Maria and the Collins girls must now plan a future.
Daughters Kathryn (17), Elizabeth (15), Philippa (11) and Adrienne (8) have been a "family of strength".
"We have helped each other through this ordeal – I couldn't have made it out without the girls.
"We were all emotional write-offs early in the piece but we crawled through it together," tells Maria.
"We had to go on and I insisted that we couldn't just lock ourselves away from the world, because it would have been so hard to get back."
Then Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe chats with Maria, Tonci Farac (whose partner, Sue, also died aboard the flight), Kathryn and Philippa at the public apology and unveiling of a memorial to the Erebus victims in 2009.
Such was their determination to "go on" that Kathryn sat School Certificate science just eight hours after learning of her father's death.
"Jim had spent a lot of time helping her with that subject," says Maria with a proud smile.
Jim would also have been proud. Not only did his daughter get a 65% pass in that, her toughest subject, she passed five others as well.
"Now the inquiry is over we have reached a turning point in our lives; we are going to have to make a future for ourselves.
"Previously all our time, energy and thoughts have been turned towards clearing Jim's name. Now that's done I guess we have to start living again."
The loss of a leader and a guide in life have been among the hardest burdens to carry.
"We were an incredibly close family, we did everything together. We had a very happy set-up here. We had our ups and downs like everybody, but we were happy. I was greedy; I wanted it to go and on. I wasn't ready for it to end," says Maria.
"The biggest things we will miss about Jim are his smiling face, his cheerful personality and his spontaneous decisions.
"He was always saying, 'Let's go boating or let's go for a picnic.' We will never have that back, but we have happy memories of a wonderful man – and we will cope."
Financially, Maria has few worries – although she, unlike the relatives of passengers, has no right to compensation from the airline. The Collins family now lives on a standard Accident Compensation Commission weekly widow's allowance and estate monies.
Jim may have left his family comfortable but he has also left an enormous gap in their lives.
"We had a wonderful partnership, sharing decisions of day-to-day living. We can only try to live around that hole now," says Maria.
"Budgeting, education decisions and career choices for the girls all become larger problems without a partner."
Maria is not against the idea of marriage again sometime in the future.
"I have to go forward with an open mind. At the moment I am just living from day to day, and maybe thinking about tomorrow. I won't be throwing myself at the first man who comes along, but I am not against remarriage."
In the meantime she has her hands full with a house, four children and a non-stop torrent of purely supportive mail.
"New Zealand people have been amazing. I have had – and answered – 600 letters from all over the country; telegrams, flowers and non-stop calls from friends, casual acquaintances and total strangers.
"That has been wonderful."
One of Maria's latest decisions was to plan a three-week European trip for herself and the girls.
"It's going to be a fresh start; three weeks away to put all this behind us and get on with living."
And yes, the Collins family will fly Air New Zealand – without any doubts too.
"It is still an excellent airline. They have good planes, good crews and good pilots."

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