Boat on fire off Whakatane coast

Image of the boat on fire off the coast of Whakatane (3 News)
Image of the boat on fire off the coast of Whakatane (3 News)

Fifty-three passengers and seven crew have been rescued and are back on shore after a White Island tour boat was on fire.

Passengers were taken off the 23m PeeJay Tour boat and put on to a smaller vessel after it caught ablaze off the Whakatane coast.

Four people have been taken to hospital, one suffering from smoke inhalation and the others for minor injuries after jumping overboard.

The four, a 47-year-old South Australian woman, a 35-year-old woman from New Plymouth and two Ohope locals, a 36-year-old man and 23-year-old woman, were in Whakatane Hospital with minor injuries this evening and may be released soon.

Police say they suffered from smoke inhalation and from jumping into the water.

Emergency services received a call that the ship was in trouble around 3:45pm. The boat was the Whakatane-based White Island Tours boat the Pee Jay 5.

A Coastguard boat and a number of small vessels assisted in the recovery and a helicopter swept the area to confirm everyone had been rescued.

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

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

An eyewitness said the boat was "fully" on fire with smoke billowing out.

"It's a massive, massive fire," she said.

Police had blocked off the roads surrounding the coast she said.

"There must be every emergency service here."

The ship was thought to be about 1km offshore.

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

A helicopter carried out a sweep of the water to confirm everyone had been rescued and the passenger manifest showed everyone had been accounted for.

One of the Pee Jay 5's crew was among those taken to hospital.

The burn-out vessel has sunk.

"We're extremely upset this has occurred, and are trying to come to terms with it, but we're extremely proud of our crew and staff for their efforts and thankful to the emergency responders," White Island Tours managing directors Peter and Jenny Tait said in a statement.

They had planned and prepared for the scenario, Mr Tait said.

"We're providing assistance for passengers who may have lost personal items that were aboard the vessel."

Most of the passengers were overseas tourists and many had lost their passports, Whakatane Mayor Tony Bonne told RNZ.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission says two inspectors will be in the Bay of Plenty tomorrow morning.

They will interview those on board and try to examine the vessel, if possible, to try and identify the cause of the blaze.

White Island Tours will continue its operations using other vessels.

3 News / RadioLIVE / NZN