A newly-wed American couple had a "surreal" start to their honeymoon when the boat they were on caught fire off Whakatane yesterday, one day after they arrived n New Zealand to begin their holiday.

Mathew and Panagiota Stone, who work for an investment company in the United States, were on the White Island Tours' Pee Jay V boat to see the volcano after their plan to go diving was cancelled due to bad weather.

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The pair were married in Jacksonville, Florida, in mid-November and planned to spend just over a week in New Zealand before travelling on to Tahiti.


Mr Stone told the Herald they would still explore the North and South Islands until next Tuesday as planned and, if anything, yesterday's experience made them more fond of the country than before.

"I wouldn't say it's put us off New Zealand. We've been absolutely in awe driving from Auckland to Whakatane, it's such a beautiful place," he said.

"Because we were able to get out of it without any harm or loss of anything of value it just seems like an adventure. I'd say we're probably more endeared to the country than ever before."

Mr Stone called the experience surreal, but said more than anything he and his wife were thankful to have made it off the boat unharmed, and with their belongings intact.

Despite making it off the boat and back to shore unscathed, Mr Stone admitted he was "very frightened" when he saw how big the fire was and how quickly it was spreading.

"[We were] incredibly scared. We thought at any time the boat was going to explode. That was the big concern."

Mr Stone said the vessel was nearly back to shore when they noticed the fire.

"[My wife] started not feeling well and I looked up and said 'look, we're not far away we're almost there' and then we saw smoke. We smelled it immediately. I knew straight away something was wrong because smoke shouldn't have come up to the second floor [of the boat] that quickly.

"We started to see the flames coming out on the second level. With all the smoke coming out it was very difficult to breathe."

He said staff remained calm as people around them began to panic, some even jumping off the boat despite not being directed to by crew.

Once the crew realised the size of the fire, they quickly sprang into action, he said.

"They started yelling at the captain 'we need to get the people off now'."

Mr Stone said he grabbed his wife as they decided who would jump first. She told him she wanted it to be him.

"We were holding onto each other and I kept telling her 'we're going to be okay, we're going to be okay'. I was confident I could jump but I was worried she might not, so once I hit the water I just sat there and waited, praying in my head she was going to clear the boat, land safely."

The captain helped Mrs Stone to jump, throwing her over the side and she and her husband clambered onto a fishing boat, which had come over to help with the rescue.

As they sat in safety, the couple looked back at the vessel they had been on moments before.

"You could see the boat completely engulfed in flames and there were still three or four on the boat waiting to be rescued," Mr Stone said.

He said he wanted to thank the bravery of the people in the fishing boat who pulled them out of the ocean to safety.

"The people that helped us did so without regard to their own safety and that was pretty amazing. I only wish I had their names or at least the name of the boat. They are true heroes.

"Going through that together definitely bonded us and it's hopefully a story we can tell for years."