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Forty years on from Erebus air disaster two youngest men involved in body recovery return to Antarctica

He needed to be there. That's how one police officer involved in the recovery of the bodies from Mt Erebus feels after returning to Antarctica for the first time since the tragedy.

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Stuart Leighton and Brett Jones were in Antarctica for the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. Source: 1 NEWS

On the 40th anniversary, retired inspectors Stuart Leighton and Brett Jones spoke to 1 NEWS about how ill-prepared they were, but how important the work was.

“I've been trying very hard, ever since I got back, to come back down here,” Mr Leighton explains.

“I never thought it would happen and it just feels absolutely fantastic”.

The last time he and Mr Jones stepped foot on the ice was as part of the body recovery team.

Prime Minister and Air NZ apologise to families of Erebus air disaster victims, 40 years on from crash

They were aged 22 and 24, two of the youngest in a group of 11 officers sent in 1979.

Retrieving the 257 victims an enormous and daunting task.

Mr Jones described it as “energy sapping, both physically and mentally”.

Mr Leighton had never been in the snow and ice before stepping off the plane in Antarctica .

“There was one time on the mountain when I thought I was honestly, genuinely believed that I was going to perish”.

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The men were part of the 60 strong team working at different times on the crash site during the two week recovery period. It remains the largest disaster victim identification operation in New Zealand police history.

For some of those on site, it was more than a job.

“I’ve never lost sight that this was all for the families, what we did was for the families," says Mr Leighton.

A remembrance service was held at the Erebus memorial at Scott Base and included a message from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, read out by a spokesperson from Antarctica New Zealand.

“I am grateful for the courage they showed, as at the same time I recognise that for some of the experience they endured cost them dearly”.

As well as paying tribute, Mr Leighton and Mr Jones have been relieving old memories and creating new ones. They’ve spent the week visiting various science events and historical huts with Antarctica New Zealand.

Mr Jones says the experience has been “an immense thrill, wonderful”.

All in the shadow of a mountain, which touched the lives of so many New Zealanders.