Passengers' terror as tour boat burst into flames: 'They just got off in time'

By Patrice Dougan, Belinda Feek

Terrified passengers on a White Island tour boat leaped from the upper deck of the blazing vessel into the choppy ocean off Whakatane yesterday as flames quickly engulfed the ferry.

One woman, who jumped off the PeeJay V after a day visiting the volcano with her husband, described the frightening moment she feared the vessel would explode.

Sue Odom and husband Nick were among 60 passengers and crew forced to make the terrifying decision of staying on board long enough for rescue vessels to reach the stricken tour boat, or jumping into the sea about 1km from shore on a wet, stormy afternoon, after a fire broke out about 3.45pm.

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"It was very dramatic and very frightening. It was like jumping off a double decker bus," said Mrs Odom, who lives in Hamilton.

"We were worried the boat might explode. I don't know if I was more scared of the flames or of jumping into the sea," she said.

"It was a miracle that we got off alive, without a question."

The couple, both in their 60s, were on their way back from a White Island tour when the cabin of the two-storey PeeJay V began to fill with smoke.

"I couldn't tell what caused it. There was just masses of smoke that swept through the cabin."

Melbourne friends Lauren Smith and Tea Blagojevic were rescued from the burning vessel. Photo / Belinda Feek
Melbourne friends Lauren Smith and Tea Blagojevic were rescued from the burning vessel. Photo / Belinda Feek

It was a terrifying sight, she said.

"The fear we had - we were all standing holding on to the outside rail, and we could see that the cabin was absolutely full of smoke and it was escaping, seeping out through cracks between the windows and doors, which had all been shut."

Passengers were immediately given life jackets to put on.

"I said to my husband, 'I'm just worried that it's going to explode', and he said, 'Yeah that's what I'm thinking as well'.

"But we just held tight, watching it get worse and worse. Then the fire broke out and the fumes were terrible, but the boat kept turning round so that we weren't inhaling them - it was caustic.

"There were so many fears running through my head.

The passengers and crew all made it back to shore.
The passengers and crew all made it back to shore.

"But the staff were wonderful and so was the captain. Everybody stayed very calm and we all went outside. It took about 20 minutes before we actually had to jump off.

"We were holding on waiting for rescue boats and hoping it wouldn't explode."

When help arrived - in the form of a private charter boat, a commercial fishing vessel, two boats from White Island Tours, and the Coastguard - Mrs Odom jumped into the choppy water.

"The boats kind of circled and pulled us on board. We didn't have any strength, although we're good swimmers. I found a rope and I held onto it and I could feel the people pulling it. When I got to the boat, I couldn't help myself at all - they just had to pick me up out of the sea. I felt like a whale."

Emergency services were waiting on shore at Whakatane Heads for their arrival.

"Everybody was there when we came into shore - the ambulance and Fire Service. They had dry stuff for us to put on, and drinks. Then we went back to the boat tours headquarters and they had the cafe open and we all had a hot drink."

Melbourne friends Lauren Smith, 29, and Tea Blagojevic, 28 - in NZ to attend a friend's wedding - - were on the upper deck when they noticed the smoke, then flames.

"We had to jump off. The flames were coming from both sides ... The captain very nicely assisted us to get off," Ms Blagojevic said.

In the water, she turned around to see the whole ferry ablaze.

Emergency services and local boaties were able to help everyone off the burning vessel.
Emergency services and local boaties were able to help everyone off the burning vessel.

"There was a lovely man in the water and he was like, 'It's okay, we're away from the flames', and I'm like, 'What if the wind changes?' But the blaze, the entire thing is on fire, and you're like, 'Oh my god, that just happened. Insane. I was just hoping it wasn't going to explode."

Ms Smith said she could smell what she thought was diesel.

"It happened very quickly. The crew were trying their best to get down into the engine room but they didn't have time because it was so quick."

After landing in the water, the pair jumped on to White Island Tour's dinghy before being transferred to a fishing charter to head to shore.
Ms Blagojevic - who was visiting New Zealand for the first time - said she was "petrified", but didn't cry until she was on land.

All 53 passengers and seven crew made it back to shore with the help of rescuers. Four people were taken to Whakatane Hospital for treatment.

The dramatic fire and rescue played out in full view of locals who gathered at Whakatane Heads, and was live streamed on the Whakatane Coastguard website.

The last to jump

Len Hinksman and partner Sue Cumber were in New Zealand, from England, to see their grandchild for the first time.

However, the photos they had taken were now on the camera at the bottom of the ocean after the pair jumped from the Pee Jay V yesterday.

Ms Cumber said she was taking a nap on Mr Hinksman's lap when they were alerted to the emergency.

"Then there was a lot of smoke and we had to go through out on to the front."

Mr Hinksman said the boat was so quickly engulfed in smoke "it was like somebody turned the lights out".

Ms Cumber said they managed to get life jackets while others got one after they'd been thrown back from the life rafts.

"There appeared not to be enough of them. They were throwing them back to us and I was worried because he can't swim."

The pair, who were amongst the last to jump off, said they had no choice but to jump when they saw the flames coming towards them.

"We waited and saw that the ship was on fire ... It was very frightening," Ms Cumber said.

"The black smoke was awful to walk through and he (partner) didn't come out for a while."

Mr Hinksman, who was still coughing up a bit of black smoke, said he couldn't praise the crew of the boat enough and said they did an outstanding job.

However, they were just grateful that it happened so close to shore.

"If the boats had to come out several more miles to find us there would have been half of us in the water without life jackets."

Meanwhile, a German passenger, who did not want to be named, is currently on his honeymoon after getting married in November.

The man said they were sitting on the lower deck when he noticed smoke coming out of the fridge.

He said the crew very quickly ushered everybody down to the front of the boat and there was no time to grab life jackets that were stored in that area.

"So that was a problem for the lower deck, but upper deck people all had life jackets. Some of them have them to children or people who couldn't swim."

The man said groups of people were jumping at a time so that the people in the inflatable boats could rescue them.

The couple have been in New Zealand for three weeks and are due to fly out at the end of the week.

He also praised the crew for their efforts working in such trying conditions.

- Additional reporting: Katee Shanks and Haylee King

- NZ Herald

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