Friday, November 24, 2017
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Whakatane boat sinks after fire

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The vessel that caught fire with 60 people on board near Whakatane is now on the ocean floor.

All 53 passengers and seven crew were rescued from the boat – the Whakatane-based Peejay 5 - when it caught fire about 1km offshore. Read more here.

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A boat caught fire near Whakatane yesterday afternoon. Photo: Supplied

Police were notified of the boat’s situation when smoke and fire was seen coming from the vessel around 3.45pm.

A general call went out for any boats to assist and there was an immediate response from local charter operators,” says a statement from police.

Four large vessels and Coastguard were present at the scene very quickly.

“At about 4pm a mayday call was received by NZ Rescue Coordination Centre that they were abandoning the vessel.”

All passengers and crew were rescued from the sea and transported to a triage centre on Whakatane Wharf.

After assessment by ambulance staff, one passenger and one crew member were transported to Whakatane Hospital as precautionary matter, say police.

“The vessel has subsequently sunk. Any enquiries with regard to passengers are to be directed to the tour operator.

“Police would like to thank the response of local operators who assisted with the rescue and undoubtedly saved the lives of those on board.”

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission has opened an inquiry in the matter.

Two investigators are expected to to arrive in Whakatane this morning to begin interviewing those involved, gathering information on the vessel, its operation and to examine the vessel’s remains if possible, says general manager Peter Northcote.

"The purpose of the inquiry will be to identify the circumstances and causes of the accident with a view of helping prevent similar accidents in the future."

Former New Zealand rower Rob Hamill was staying in a house near the mouth of the Whakatane River and witnessed the fire, reports Stuff.

"It was a blazing inferno," says Rob. "It was incredible."

He says fire could be seen from the boat’s stern before it enveloped the cabin of the 22-metre vessel.

"Obviously the engine area was alight first, by the sound of it.

"And then the cabin - because there is a huge cabin on it,  it’s a big boat - the cabin took alight and that went on for 15 or 20 minutes.

And then it burnt down and it sort of burst out the sides, then it went through the side of the boat."

He said the boat was already on fire when it came around the point before it anchored.

"It was stationary and you watched this thing unfold, stationary in 25 to 30-knot wind.

"I was surprised how long it took to sink, actually.

"It would disappear into the rain and you’d think, you can’t see any flames, it’s on its way down and then it would pop out into view."

Boat-loads of people, all wearing life-jackets, came and were whisked away to be cared for.

"You’d hate to be in their position. It would be absolutely terrifying."

Additional reporting -

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