Tess Nichol is an NZME. News Service reporter.

Boat owners devastated by fire

The owners of a boat which caught fire off Whakatane yesterday afternoon confirmed Maritime Safety New Zealand and the Transport Accident Investigation Commission are investigating the fire. Staff are due to arrive this morning.

White Island Tours' managing directors Peter and Jenny Tait were working with authorities to assist the investigations.

The couple praised the way their staff handled the situation.

"We have planned and prepared for this scenario," said Mr Tait. "We're extremely upset this has occurred, and are trying to come to terms with it, but we're extremely proud of our crew and staff for their efforts and thankful to the emergency responders who assisted in the rescue operation."

The Taits said all passengers made it to shore safely and the company was helping those who had lost personal items on board.

White Island Tours will continue to operate using the company's other vessels.

Whakatane mayor Tony Bonne said the whole community was rallying around the Taits.

"The whole town is feeling for the Taits. They're part of the Whakatane family, they've been doing it for 26 years and the bulk of our tourism comes through White Island," he said.

"Everyone in the community is talking about. Even last night I couldn't get to sleep because I kept thinking about the boat fire."

Mr Bonne said he raced to the scene as soon as he heard about the fire, arriving shortly after everyone on board had made it safely to shore.

He offered hugs and support to the Taits, whom he has known for many years.

The couple were devastated, he said, but inundated with support.

"They got hugs and embraces, that's the beauty of provincial New Zealand. Smaller places are just like families and we circle around when there's a disaster."

Locals were doing what they could to support those on board as well.

"When there was a call for blankets they had to turn people away because [so many] were bringing blankets down," Mr Bonne said.

White Island Tours was helping those who had left personal belongings such as passports or credit cards on board, but he could not comment further on how many people were stuck in Whakatane or for how long.

Describing fire at sea as the biggest fear any boat operator had, Mr Bonne praised the way the blaze was handled.

"I haven't heard one negative comment, everyone was praising each other.

"I think this will be a textbook rescue situation and I just hope the investigators find the cause so they can take some prevention so it doesn't happen again on the other boats."

As for whereabouts on the fire stared, Mr Sullivan said it appeared to have come from the engine area but at this stage it was just speculation until TAIC investigators could confirm. He was unsure how long that investigation would take.

As for the issue of life jackets, Mr Sullivan said there were 120 stores on board, however some were inaccessible due to the fire and smoke which passengers have told the Herald was moving rapidly.

"Because of the rapid emission of smoke there were some locations where they were stored that they could not get to so there were a mix of passengers that did and didn't get life jackets."

Some life jackets were also transferred from other responding vessels, he said.

He said it was too early to say if they would replace Pee Jay V.

As for its operations, they hadn't been told to cease by Maritime NZ but due to today's heavy rain and wind they wouldn't have ventured out anyway.

As a precaution, they would wait for official word from Maritime NZ before resuming tours.

- NZ Herald

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