Wreckage from sunk tour ship washes up

Matt Cook with a piece of wreckage of the White Island tour ship that washed up at Coastlands Beach
Matt Cook with a piece of wreckage of the White Island tour ship that washed up at Coastlands Beach

The first pictures have emerged of wreckage from the Pee Jay V that sank off the coast of Whakatane yesterday.

The burnt wreckage of the ship was located along Coastlands Beach.

Pollution from from the wreckage is minimal, regional council staff say.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council's pollution prevention manager Nick Zanam told the Herald that if there was serious environmental damage the high tides would have washed up an oil slick across local beaches.

A piece of the wreckage of Pee Jay V that sunk of the coast of Whakatane after setting on fire
A piece of the wreckage of Pee Jay V that sunk of the coast of Whakatane after setting on fire

However, that hasn't occurred after the last two high tides since White Island Tour's Pee Jay V caught fire and sunk about 1km off the Whakatane coast.

Mr Zanam said the fire was so fierce and black that it appeared to have burnt off the majority of the toxic chemicals, with there being no wash up along the coastline between the Whakatane River mouth and Golf Links Rd.

"A team of local Iwi, Ngati Awa, Bay of Plenty Regional Council staff and Department of Conservation staff did a beach survey this morning.

"We observed between the Coastlands beach and Whakatane River mainly burnt out pieces of timber from the boat. We had staff from PeeJay's with us who identified them as bits of the actual vessel that had sunk.

"We've had no reports of any other vessel sinking so we know it's fresh and from overnight. What you can see here (along the beach) is that there is no hydrocarbon contamination."

Instead, the high tide mark had left only residue from the burnt timber and charcoal.

"You can see from the water marks that there's no sheen. You would expect a hydrocarbon sheen if there was more diesel washed up, just like you see oil spots on the road and that burst of colour."

The boat, by law, was supposed to carry enough for fuel for two return trips.
As for where the ship's oil has gone, Mr Zanam said it was a "very high intensity fire".

"It was thick black smoke ... From an environmental stand point it's very good that most of the residual diesel and stuff was burnt off."

A PeeJay's staff member had identified the two longest pieces of wreckage washed up on the beach as the ship's railing, which would have stretched along either side.

A large amount of other charred remains of the ship have also washed up including a port hole, nails and pieces of metal.

Mr Zanam said the boat was made from kauri wood and fibreglass.

A piece of the wreckage of Pee Jay V that sunk of the coast of Whakatane after setting on fire
A piece of the wreckage of Pee Jay V that sunk of the coast of Whakatane after setting on fire

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

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.

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.

It's too early to speculate what caused the fire and subsequent sinking, a Transport Accident Investigation Commission spokesman has said.

Rob Thompson, investigator in charge, spoke to media in Whakatane this afternoon and said it was not yet known how the fire started on PeeJay V.

Mr Thompson said it would take several weeks to gather information from passengers and crews.

Two Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) investigators arrived in Whakatane this morning to begin gathering evidence for the inquiry into the fire.

"They have been setting up and starting interviews, speaking with the operating company, and begun to collect documentary evidence," a spokesman said.

"The first interview priority is the crew, with contact information available for the passengers who were all pre-booked."

The two investigators are expected to stay in Whakatane until Thursday, at least, he said, but would return as required throughout the evidence gathering phase.

No decision on underwater inspection or salvage of the sunken wreck has yet been made.

"[This] will be made by the Commission once its potential value can be assessed against other evidence as it is collected," the spokesman said.

- NZ Herald

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