Brendan Paterson reckons he aged years in seconds after losing sight of his 12-year-old autistic son when the pair leapt from an inferno on PeeJay V.

Mr Paterson and his sons William, 13, and Elliot, 12, who are holidaying in New Zealand from Australia, were among 53 passengers and seven crew aboard the White Island Tours vessel when it caught fire about 1km off the Whakatane bar about 3.45pm yesterday.

The vessel was returning from a tour to White Island when the fire broke out.

Passengers on board a burning ship were forced to jump into the water to escape the flames.

"I watched William, who is a fairly competent swimmer, jump into the water ahead of Elliot and myself," Mr Paterson said.


"For a terrifying 15 seconds after we jumped, I could not see my youngest son. I'm feeling a lot older now than I was this morning."

He said passengers were left with no choice but to jump as flames raced toward the bow.

"Things happened really quickly. First off we noticed smoke in the cabin, then heat and then flames. It took minutes."

A rescuer aboard one of the boats that went to the aid of the passengers, said all but six or seven people had jumped in to the water.

"It was fast getting to a point where there was nowhere left to stand on the boat," the man, who did not want to be named, said.

"We're really fortunate this happened so close to shore. If the boat had been halfway between White Island and Whakatane there may have been a very different outcome."

19 Jan, 2016 2:00pm
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Mr Paterson said the ordeal had "freaked us all out a bit".

"The boys seem to be doing well although Elliott says he's never getting on a boat again."

He said while the water was warm, it was pretty rough and the 15 minutes before they were picked up by support boats, seemed a lot longer than it was.

"I know this place is called Whakatane but that wasn't the word going through my mind," Mr Paterson joked.

"Close though."

Mr Paterson praised the PeeJay V crew and all involved in the rescue.

"They kept a level head and gave us clear instructions," he said. "I'm sure it could have been a lot worse."

White Island Tours managing directors Peter and Jenny Tait, spoke to media last night.

"Firstly I have to thank the great staff and the great rescue teams who made sure no lives were lost in this tragedy," Mr Tait said.

"While we have lost our flagship vessel, everyone got to shore safely and that's what matters."

He said while they knew the fire started in the engine room, he would wait for the investigation.

"In the 26 years since we started this business we have never had anything like this happen. But I believe we were well prepared."

He said Mrs Tait had been on PeeJay IV which went to the aid of Pee Jay V, while he and his son Isaac had got on the Moutohora Catamaran and had also gone out to help with the rescue.

Sue and Nick Odom were also among the 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 jump into the cold Pacific Ocean on a wet and stormy afternoon.

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

"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.

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

She described the fear felt by the couple, who are in their 60s.

"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 lifejackets 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'," she said.

"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."

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. A 36-year-old man from Ohope, a 35-year-old woman from New Plymouth, a 23-year-old woman from Ohope and a 47-year-old woman from South Australia, were all in a stable condition in the hospital last night, a spokeswoman for the Bay of Plenty District Health Board said.

Terry Robinson, from fishing charter company Morning Glory Charters, was one of the first private boats to respond to radio calls for help from the PeeJay V.

"We got there and just didn't really think too much or even look [around us].

"Our main priority was just getting people out [of the water], and get them back to the wharf and to the right people to make sure they were all okay."

However, Mr Robinson downplayed the heroic actions of himself and his crew, saying they were just doing what anybody else would have done.

"Hopefully someone will do it for me one day, or hopefully they won't have to do it for me, but it's just the kind of thing you do for people and I know they would have done the same thing [for me] at the drop of a hat. It's just the way it is."

He didn't think much about it at the time, he said. "At the time, your adrenaline's going and you don't even think about that, it's only at the end of it when you actually think about it you feel a bit sick, because you start thinking about what's actually going on. It's the last thing you'd want to see happen to anybody's vessel and it's just a pretty freaky feeling actually."

It's understood the Morning Glory, a commercial fishing vessel, and two other boats from the tour company went out to the PeeJay V with Coastguard after the call came over the radio.

- Additional reporting Patrice Dougan, Susan Strongman, Moana Tapaleao and Haylee King.