Vaimoana Tapaleao is the New Zealand Herald's Pacific Affairs and People reporter.

77-year-old survivor: 'She's a hero'

Sitting on the edge of a burning vessel, 77-year-old Karin Bittman braced herself for what she had to do next - jump into the freezing sea.

Mrs Bittman was among the 60 people on board the White Island Tours' PeeJay V when it caught fire off the coast of Whakatane on Monday.

Mrs Bittman, from Germany, is visiting her daughter and family on a four-week holiday. The trip to White Island was an early birthday gift from her daughter, Anne Laking, her husband George and the couple's two sons, Robert, 20, and Julian, 17.

Speaking through her daughter, Mrs Bittman told the Herald about the moment she was told they needed to jump.

"I wasn't really frightened because I knew that I could swim and I knew I had the life jacket on. The [inflatable] boat was very close, so I knew I would be okay."

But her family have praised her bravery and resilience.

"We think she's a hero," Mrs Laking said. "She was the oldest [on board], absolutely. There were people in their 60s, but I think she was the eldest."

Authorities are still to determine what caused a fire on the vessel, which was carrying 53 passengers and seven crew members.

Mrs Bittman said one of the most frightening things during the ordeal was after she had been pulled into the lifeboat - only for it to drift towards the burning boat. By then, there was a fear it may explode.

"You could feel the heat by then and getting too close to the burning ship was the scariest situation," she said.

The family were quick to praise the efforts of the boat's skipper and crew, who made sure everyone was looked after and accounted for before abandoning the vessel themselves.

"My mum just really wants to thank and congratulate the crew. "The crew stayed on until the very last [moment]. They didn't have any life jackets on. The skipper dived in last. They did their bit, really."

The family, holidaying from Auckland, are continuing their trip around the Bay of Plenty.

White Island Tours resumed boat trips to the volcanic island yesterday morning aboard the vessel PeeJay IV.

Marketing manager and spokesman Patrick O'Sullivan said investigations by Maritime New Zealand and the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) were continuing but there had been no requirement for operations to be suspended.

"We felt it was prudent to temporarily suspend operations while the investigations commenced yesterday," he says. "But after confirming that the authorities have no initial concerns with tours being carried out on our other vessels, we are back out to White Island today."

TAIC have interviewed the boat's crew and local Coastguard personnel, and reviewed video and photos taken during the operation.

No decision has been made on whether the wreckage will be recovered from the sea floor.

- NZ Herald

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