Crew from stricken boat arrive in Lyttelton

Last updated 17:12 12/09/2012
Daniel Tobin

A crew member of the fishing boat Amaltal Columbia talks about what happened on board when the fire broke out.

Fishing boat fire

Amaltal Columbia in Lyttelton port
Kirk Hargreaves Zoom
DAMAGED: Amaltal Columbia has been towed into Lyttelton.

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Crew evacuated off the stricken fishing boat Amaltal Columbia have arrived in Lyttelton Harbour safe and well, but say the ordeal was "pretty scary stuff".

There were smiles and waves as the 43-strong crew this afternoon got off the Russian trawler which rescued them. Some even hugged people meeting them on shore.

The Nelson-based 64 metre factory trawler had put out a mayday call at 5.30am this morning after a fire had started aboard when it was 85km off the Lyttelton Heads.

kitchen assistant Louise Kissana was in her cabin getting ready to go start her shift when the alarms went off.

"There was a lot of smoke, everyone was pretty calm. The captain was really good, told everyone what was happening and just made sure everyone was there, in their suits and ready to go if need be," she said.

But she said was very shaken by the whole thing.

"It was scary [getting into the lifeboats], you imagine climbing down the side of your ship, in the middle of nowhere. in rough weather."

She said the sight of the Russian trawler coming to their rescue was fantastic.

"It was one time we were quite thankful to see the Russians coming."

The crew were taken to Lyttelton where they were enjoying beers and food at the Lyttelton Club while they were debriefed. A doctor was on site but no-one had been injured.

They would be flown back to Nelson later this afternoon and counselling would be offered to them.

The traumatic events of the day were still sinking in for the crew, Kissane said.

''We're just in shock. I don't really know what to say. I'm just really glad everybody is fine,'' she said. ''We're a pretty tough bunch, but we have been shaken. We can't believe this happened.''

Kissane said the experience would not put her off returning to sea.

''Not at all....but it hasn't been the best day. I think I need a cuddle.''

Talley's Nelson CEO Tony Halzett said the abandon-ship order was not given lightly.

"When the captain gives the abandon-ship order he has a good reason for doing so. It's not done lightly. You only get into trouble when you don't follow orders," he said.

The crew members would be deployed on other vessels but the company would be able to salvage the ship, he said.

"It is going to impact [economically] but at the end of the day we just want to get the crew off it safely."

Halzett said he was grateful to the other ships for going to the vessel's aid. "I really want to thank them for helping us in this situation."

It was lucky the ship had not been further out to sea, he said. "It could have taken a lot longer to get to them."

They were still awaiting conformation of whether they could bring the boat into Lyttelton.

"We have had better days," Halzett said.

He believed there was half of the 450,000 litres of fuel still on board.

Halzett said fires were not common "at all" on boats.

"They do occur fairly infrequently. We have full fire fighting gear on board and full training and fire teams but they're not common."

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The Nelson-based ship had been three weeks into a 45-day trip, and the crew members were from all over the country.

Caterers were bringing food and drink into the Lyttelton Club in preparation of the crew's arrival. Counselling would also be available for the them.

The crew members, who had two weeks to go, would be deployed on other boats, but the incident would still have an impact economically, he said.

The cause of the fire was not yet known.

'FIREBALL'

The ship was "a fireball from the bow to the stern" this morning but the main thing was everyone was safe, Talley's Group managing director Peter Talley said.

"It's an absolute disaster," he said, "but everyone's okay, there's no panic there at all".

The crew had been safely evacuated to a Russian trawler, the Ivan Golubets, Maritime New Zealand confirmed earlier today.

Talley said the Columbia was four hours off Lyttelton and had lost all power and steering. Hotspots could be seen along the ship's hull from the air.

"It appears that the fire started in the fishmeal hold. The crew fought it for three or four hours. They had to cut the fishing gear and leave it behind so they could get under way. So it doesn't look good."

The Columbia was being captained by Chris Patrick, from Nelson, "our top skipper", Talley said.

The crew were trained and drilled in fire safety. Some had got to the seat of the fire and fought it until their breathing gear was exhausted.

"It was so bad at one stage the skipper had to abandon the wheelhouse because of the thick black smoke."

Talley said his senior fishing executives from Nelson had all been sent to Lyttelton.

Talley's had owned the Columbia for 20 years, taking the ship "brand new out of the shipyard in Norway", he said.

An RNZAF Orion had been in position above the ship monitoring the situation, with two boats responding to the mayday.

The Amaltal Columbia and sister ship Amaltal Atlantis were two of the biggest deepsea trawlers in the Talley's fleet.

They were factory ships and most of their crews, drawn from the Nelson region and around New Zealand, work in the factories, which produce fillets of various grades frozen and packed, with the remains of the fish rendered down into powdered fish meal in a cooking process.

A full hold contained 550 tons of processed fish and 160 tonnes of fishmeal.

The two boats had just had a highly successful season in the West Coast hoki fishery.

Talley's was recognised across the fishing industry for the high standard of maintenance on its vessels.

Fire Service assistant area manager for Tasman-Marlborough, Rob Allan, said ships had a similar evacuation plan to any building on land, so there were particular areas people would be evacuated to.

Crew members also underwent training in ship fire fighting, so they would be able to initially carry out some parts of the task, he said.

"Part of their training to get their tickets is fire fighting skills and I can assure you they take it extremely seriously. You can't jump out a window and walk away there."

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission had opened an inquiry into the fire. Two investigators had been assigned to the inquiry and were monitoring the developing situation from Wellington until the vessel and recovered crew's movements were confirmed.

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