Reef boat disaster tourist tells of 6 hour horror ordeal

COVERED in a blanket a Chinese man pointed to his watch and counted "one, two, three, four, five, six - no good, no good' - the number of hours he was stuck at sea.

He and another 41 passengers were on the Spirit of 1770 when it caught fire about 4pm, forcing all of them to jump ship and swim to life rafts out near Lady Musgrave Island.

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Emergency services attend to the first passengers ashore after the boat they were traveling on caught fire.
Emergency services attend to the first passengers ashore after the boat they were traveling on caught fire. Paul Braven

Many of the elderly Chinese passengers couldn't swim properly but Swedish backpackers said a man was swimming around helping all of them into the rafts.

The Chinese man in his 60s spoke very little English, but swayed side to side and imitated a spewing motion before rubbing his stomach to show that he and many others experienced sea sickness while waiting in the raft for rescuers to arrive.

On the mainland, Agnes Water Police sergeant Jock Edwards had organised crabbing and fishing boats to join Round Hill Volunteer Marine Rescue to head out to the passengers.

A man on one of the boats said the trip was closer to 16 nautical miles than the initially reported 10.

He also said the outgoing tide made coming back into the 1770 Marina slower than usual.

While they were rescuing the passengers, nine ambulances from Bundaberg, Agnes Water, Miriam Vale and Gladstone set up a triage centre for their return.

They were joined by police, firies and 1770 locals waiting and looking into the black night. Stuck on the mainland, the Chinese bus driver was having an ordeal of his own not understanding what was happening.

It was just after 10pm when the lights from a fishing boat were spotted heading towards the marina.

He ran down the jetty and pushed his way through police officers to get to his passengers but was forced to wait while police ticked each of them off a list.

He ushered his passengers to the waiting ambulance officers, in between running hot drinks and becoming flustered about who to care for next. He didn't know if he should usher passengers or serve hot drinks.

The emergency service's system swung into action too and despite the frantic running of food and drinks everyone remained calm.



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