Whakatane fisherman Steve Haddock believes the actions of the Pee Jay V skipper played a huge part in the successful rescue of over 60 people after fire destroyed the ship they were touring on.

Mr Haddock owns and operates the commercial fishing boat Zambucca, one of four vessels that answered the call for help after fire broke out in the engine room of Pee Jay V at 3.45pm on Monday, but was aboard Morning Glory during the rescue.

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"I was having lunch at the Whakatane Sport Fishing Club with my wife Megan when the call for help went up," Mr Haddock said.

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"At the time I was talking to Terry Robinson who owns Morning Glory. We heard about the fire and I knew the Zambucca crew were heading to the boat however, we were initially told the fire had been contained.

"Within a minute the information had changed and we jumped on board Morning Glory and headed out. It took between 5 and 8 minutes to get to Pee Jay V."

Emergency services are on their way off the coast of Whakatane after reports a passenger ship is on fire. Police Northern Communications Centre spokesman Inspector Peter Raynes said the call came in at 3.45 that help was needed after the passenger ship got into difficulty. The boat is reportedly a White Island tour boat. Police say there are up to 30 or 40 people on board. People are being taken off the PeeJay Tour boat and put on to a smaller vessel.

He said when they got to the boat the flames were incredible. Some passengers were standing on the bow while others, some with life jackets and some without, were jumping overboard. Others were already in the water.

"We started dragging people onto the boat through the sea door. On their tummies, on their backs, we just kept pulling them on board."

Mr Haddock said 14 passengers ended up on Morning Glory. "You could see many were in shock but there wasn't any panic. Jumping off a boat when there are no other vessels in sight would be terrifying but Morning Glory is a big boat and passengers were aware help was already there."

Four boats were used to deliver passengers to the Coastguard building including Pee Jay IV and the Moutohora Cat, both owned by White Island Tours.

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20 Jan, 2016 8:46am
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He said the anchoring of Pee Jay V had played a significant part in the rescue.

"It stopped the vessel from drifting, stopped it listing, it also turned it into the wind and made for a good evacuation. I would say the outcome could have been quite different otherwise."

Mr Haddock said the last boat fire in Eastern Bay waters he had been involved in was a yacht fire off Ohope about 18 years ago.

White Island Tours marketing manager Patrick O'Sullivan said about 120 life jackets were kept on Pee Jay V but admitted not all passengers were wearing them on Monday.

"As far as we are aware the rapid emission of smoke meant crew could not get to some of the places the life jackets were stored," Mr O'Sullivan said.

Once again he praised the crew for the amazing job they did.