Susan Strongman of RNZ
On the afternoon of 7 December, at a picnic in Parnell, Jo Malcolm and Anne Coney will be either celebrating or commiserating.
If they’re celebrating, it’ll be because they’ve blocked the construction of a memorial to the 257 people who died when Air New Zealand flight 901 crashed into the side of Mt Erebus on 28 November, 1979.
If they’re commiserating, it’ll be because they’ve failed in their months-long fight against the memorial being built in Dove-Myer Robinson Park.
Malcolm and Coney, who both live a stone’s throw away from the park more commonly known as the Parnell Rose Gardens, insist they are not NIMBYs. But they don’t want the structure built there.
They say “Robbie’s park” is too small and the memorial is too big. They say earthworks will damage the roots of a nearby pohutukawa tree whose swooping branches local children love to climb. They say the lawn the structure is proposed for is a picnic spot, a happy place, a destination for canoodling young lovers, for eating fish and chips and drinking a glass of wine, for kids to play with a ball. The memorial will ruin all that, they say.
“You don’t throw a ball and you don’t drink a glass of wine next to the ‘grave’ – and I know it’s not actually the grave – but it’s the memorial of 257 people who have died,” says Malcolm, whose husband lost his father in the crash. “I don’t want my daughter to climb this tree and be reminded of the death of all those people.”
After circulating a petition to stop the memorial, creating Facebook group ‘Save Robbie’s Park’, handing out flyers, lobbying Auckland Council to open consultation to the public (they’ve since received 895 submissions,) getting legal firm Russel McVeagh onboard, commissioning alternative architectural illustrations of the memorial and even threatening to protest a now-cancelled sod turning ceremony on the 40th anniversary of the disaster, Malcolm and Coney have managed to get landowner approval delayed.
The Waitematā Local Board will now make its decision on whether or not to give the memorial the go-ahead on 3 December, hence the picnic that weekend.
But not everyone is celebrating the delay. There are many who want to see the national memorial built, including family members of passengers who died on the sightseeing flight. A spokesperson for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, which is leading the project, says all feedback about the design from family members – bar one person “who lives close to the proposed location” – has been positive.
But since the delay was announced, emails from families to the Ministry have expressed disappointment, hurt and sadness that after 40 years of trauma, they “were still having to battle for a broader acknowledgement of the loss of their loved ones”. Many have also expressed “frustration at the actions of local residents opposing the memorial”. Some family members who have spoken to RNZ say they wish Malcolm, Coney and the perturbed residents of Parnell would think more carefully about what it is they are protesting.
David Ling was 30 when his mother Alison died on Erebus. He’s waited and waited for successive governments to commemorate the tragedy with something, anything. He was 68 when a national memorial was finally announced. He vehemently disagrees with Coney and Malcolm’s stance, and now in his 70th year, he fears he won’t get a chance to see the memorial completed at all. “Many relatives have died waiting for some sort of memorial – including my father. This meddling could mean more relatives die before it is complete.”
Kathryn Carter is 55 now, but was only 15 when her father, pilot Jim Collins, died on Erebus. She was one of two family representatives on the panel that selected the memorial, Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song, designed by Studio Pacific Architecture in collaboration with artists Jason O’Hara and Warren Maxwell.
The memorial features a 17m long cantilevered concrete walkway extending northeast over a terraced lawn, towards the Waitematā Harbour and Rangitoto Island. The inclined walkway is bordered by two walls; one of curved, mirror-polished stainless steel features 257 unique snowflakes representing each person who died in the crash, and another of white concrete, with the names of each person on the flight and lines from Bill Manhire poem Erebus Voices etched into its side. Both walls rise from near ground level at the walkway’s entrance to a height of about 2m.
At its end, the walkway sits 5m above a footpath below, putting the maximum height of the structure at about 7m above ground level. A glass balustrade sits at its edge. Near a seating area at the entrance to the memorial, concealed, adjustable speakers will play a soundtrack composed by Maxwell. The audio is described by the Ministry as being “a subtle, sonic collage including recordings of wind, ice cracking and Weddell seals that resemble underwater ‘bird-song’.” The memorial’s footprint is 95 square metres, (175sqm including the access pathway,) approximately a fifth of the open lawn area of 945sqm. The total area of Dove-Myer Robinson Park is 55,600sqm.
Carter says the idea behind the design is a journey into the sky, appealing to the sense of exploration felt by the flight’s passengers and crew. “It’s quite specific to the Erebus accident … All the people on board were really looking forward to the journey to the ice, because it was something unique and special.”
But on the streets of Parnell, Carter has been approached by neighbours in opposition to the memorial wanting to debate its existence. At the park, she’s seen council signs notifying residents of the planned structure covered with graffiti (Auckland Council has confirmed that 23 out of 24 signs placed in the park were written on, asking people to object to the memorial). On social media, she’s seen hateful comments and “bad imagery”.
“They forget that people hurt, that there’s a lot of pain behind this. There were children who lost both parents. How can they look at what they’re doing and think it’s a good thing?”
The Ministry has told RNZ that some Erebus family members were distressed by the behaviour of, and comments made by people opposed to the memorial at a consultation day in the park in late September. A family member who was there told RNZ people “were direct in their views, accusatory in their tone, at times verbally aggressive” towards council staff. Several people standing in local body elections were there, voicing their opposition to the memorial, handing out flyers and live streaming to Facebook. “It was not a pleasant experience, and I am appalled that members of our community are disrespecting the memory of those who lost their lives, and that others were using the event as a political grandstand,” the family member, who wanted to remain anonymous, says.
Some comments on the petition are in a similar vein, with one person writing, “There is no doubt that the Erebus crash was a terrible disaster which affected a lot of people. But it was 40 years ago, and I am quite sure that most Aucklanders today haven’t heard of it and couldn’t care less about it.”
“I’ve read their comments online and in the New Zealand Herald,” says John Stewart, 74, who last saw his aunt, Dawn Matthews, when he dropped her off at the airport on the day of the doomed sightseeing flight. (She’d woken him up that morning with, “Sorry, it’s the Dawn chorus”.) “I think they are losing sight of the enormous impact it had on the nation at the time and I think they need to get a life and put up whatever imagined encroachment on their views and lives are.”
Stewart’s younger brother, Phil, says it would have been good to mark the 40th anniversary with a sod turning at the site. “We need to get on with it. These folks need to think again about the minor inconvenience of having to change the route to walk their dogs.”
In April this year, when Te Paerangi Ataata – Sky Song was announced as the selected memorial design, the Ministry received “just under 20” emails, all containing positive feedback from Erebus families and those involved in the recovery of bodies from the mountain.
In early September, the Ministry received “several emails from someone who lives close to the proposed location and also has a family connection to one of the Erebus victims” who had concerns over the placement of the memorial and elements of its design.
Malcolm and Coney defend themselves against all accusations of NIMBYism. Sure, they both live within minutes of the park, and walk in it daily (and Coney does have a dog – her name is Pipi). But Malcolm says she’d fight the memorial being placed in any inner city park; “If this was happening in Myers Park in the CBD, I’d be just as passionate about stopping that”. Coney says she’d welcome the Erebus memorial if it was in keeping with the ‘Edwardian’ style of the area. “But for a thing that looks like an on-ramp to the third harbour bridge crossing, please put it in a larger space. I don’t think that’s being a NIMBY, I think it’s being aware.”
It seems hundreds of others agree with them. For her efforts in the campaign to stop the memorial, Coney has been delivered flowers, meals and cards and has received kind phone calls. Malcolm’s had strangers coming up to her in the street to thank, even hug her, and the local dairy and fish and chip shop have put up ‘Save our Precious Park’ posters in their windows.
On Facebook and the online petition, which has garnered 587 signatures (plus more collected by hand), comments trashing the memorial are a dime a dozen. It’s been called “ugly”, a “vanity structure”, and “an eyesore”. One signatory worries it will end up a “camp for the homeless”, another fears it will block their harbour view and turn the “happy” park into a sombre memorial. Another commenter calls it “monstrous, expensive and unnecessary”, while a man who lives near the park says he walks there regularly and “I don’t wish to be reminded of this tragedy”.
“I honestly believe that it’s just that it’s taken people by surprise.”
Parnell resident and historian Rendell McIntosh says when plans to build the memorial in Dove-Myer Robinson Park were announced a year ago, he was unimpressed. Over the years, he says the site has become a mish mash of native and exotic trees mixed with commemorative chairs and memorials to Dutch soldiers and Korean War veterans. But having given it some more thought, he’s come to like it, saying it ties in with Air New Zealand’s origins at Mechanics Bay.
McIntosh dismisses Malcolm and Coney’s concerns about the memorial’s size and loss of greenspace. “I honestly believe that it’s just that it’s taken people by surprise, that there wasn’t good consultation in the early days – there could have been a letterbox drop, for example, put around the local people just saying, ‘Give us your thoughts’… Literally it was put through as a fait accompli, it was just automatically decided.”
It’s this lack of consultation that McIntosh believes is local protesters’ greatest bugbear, and indeed this is cited by those who are not in favour of the memorial. Malcolm feels the process – which was not initially open for consultation – was truncated to achieve an unrealistic deadline of the 40th anniversary.
“We’re racing it through, we’ve chosen the wrong site, and we’re pushing an agenda to hit a deadline that’s actually irrelevant. I don’t mean that to be disrespectful, but Erebus family members have been carrying grief for 40 years… I don’t think a memorial is going to fix that. But if they have to carry the grief for another 12 months, so that we end up with something that is appropriate and right for Auckland, why is that a problem?”
Greg Gilpin says he’s sick of waiting. For eight days and nights, the now-retired police inspector and his Operation Overdue colleagues camped amongst the wreckage on Mt Erebus, working 16 hour shifts to recover the bodies of those who died in the crash. It was 27 years before their work was officially recognised. This memorial, if constructed, would recognise their efforts too.
“I think what’s going on now, with this latest delay, it’s very disappointing and it’s sad, really, for the family members of those who died. We feel it too, because when you’re involved in an operation like that on the mountain, recovering the bodies of so many people, you do feel a connection to those who died.”
Like David Ling, and John Stewart, Gilpin worries that with continued delays, he won’t be around to see the memorial built. “I am concerned about it… Because here we go with Erebus. Things get delayed. Always. And the sooner it gets done the better, because a lot of the people who were involved will not be around… I’m 73, 74 or whatever. It’s happening with everyone. We’re all getting old.”
The Waitematā Local Board will make its decision at a meeting on 3 December. On the Save Robbie’s Park Facebook page, an event has been set up for that weekend. “Come and join us for a community picnic on Robbies Lawn”, the description reads. “Saturday 7 December from 4-6pm. Bring a rug and a drink and we’ll either celebrate saving our precious park, or we will talk through what we have to do next to save it!”