Aussies rescued from burning NZ tour boat
Terrified passengers on a White Island tour boat leaped from the upper deck of the blazing vessel into the choppy ocean off Whakatane in New Zealand yesterday as flames quickly engulfed the ferry.
One woman, who jumped off the PeeJay V after a day visiting the volcano with her husband, described the frightening moment she feared the vessel would explode.
Sue Odom and husband Nick were among 60 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 jumping into the sea about 1km from shore on a wet, stormy afternoon, after a fire broke out about 3.45pm.
"It was very dramatic and very frightening. It was like jumping off a double decker bus," said Mrs Odom, who lives in Hamilton.
"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," she said.
"It was a miracle that we got off alive, without a question."
The couple, both in their 60s, were on their way back from a White Island tour when the cabin of the two-storey PeeJay V began to fill with smoke.
"I couldn't tell what caused it. There was just masses of smoke that swept through the cabin."
It was a terrifying sight, she said.
"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 life jackets 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'.
"But we just held tight, watching it get worse and worse. Then the fire broke out and the fumes were terrible, but the boat kept turning round so that we weren't inhaling them - it was caustic.
"There were so many fears running through my head.
"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."
When help arrived - in the form of a private charter boat, a commercial fishing vessel, two boats from White Island Tours, and the Coastguard - Mrs Odom jumped into the choppy water.
"The boats kind of circled and pulled us on board. We didn't have any strength, although we're good swimmers. I found a rope and I held onto it and I could feel the people pulling it. When I got to the boat, I couldn't help myself at all - they just had to pick me up out of the sea. I felt like a whale."
Emergency services were waiting on shore at Whakatane Heads for their arrival.
"Everybody was there when we came into shore - the ambulance and Fire Service. They had dry stuff for us to put on, and drinks. Then we went back to the boat tours headquarters and they had the cafe open and we all had a hot drink."
Melbourne friends Lauren Smith, 29, and Tea Blagojevic, 28 - in NZ to attend a friend's wedding - - were on the upper deck when they noticed the smoke, then flames.
"We had to jump off. The flames were coming from both sides ... The captain very nicely assisted us to get off," Ms Blagojevic said.
In the water, she turned around to see the whole ferry ablaze.
"There was a lovely man in the water and he was like, 'It's okay, we're away from the flames', and I'm like, 'What if the wind changes?' But the blaze, the entire thing is on fire, and you're like, 'Oh my god, that just happened. Insane. I was just hoping it wasn't going to explode."
Ms Smith said she could smell what she thought was diesel.
"It happened very quickly. The crew were trying their best to get down into the engine room but they didn't have time because it was so quick."
After landing in the water, the pair jumped on to White Island Tour's dinghy before being transferred to a fishing charter to head to shore.
Ms Blagojevic - who was visiting New Zealand for the first time - said she was "petrified", but didn't cry until she was on land.
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.
additional reporting: Katee Shanks and Haylee King