Investigations into the cause of a major fire on a fishing vessel at sea will begin at Lyttelton today.
The stricken Nelson-based Amaltal Columbia, owned by Talley's, was towed still burning into Lyttelton by the San Discovery about 12.30am today.
Fire Service assistant area commander Dave Berry would not speculate on the cause of the fire but said it would be investigated by a fire safety officer today.
The Transport Accident Investigation Commission was at the port to begin its investigation, with an inquiry also likely by Maritime New Zealand.
Berry said 22 firefighters fought the blaze until 5am today. They remained at the port as a precaution, dampening down the vessel and overall "keeping an eye on it".
Berry credited the actions of the crew in preventing the fire spreading. He said all the compartments of the boat had been "sealed off", starving the fire of oxygen.
The managing director of Sanford Fisheries has explained why one of the company's chartered vessels did not respond to a mayday call by the Amaltal Coumbia, which burst into flames northest of the Lyttelton Heads.
Eric Barratt said the South Korean-flagged vessel Pacinui did not respond to the Amaltal Columbia's distress signal because another Sanford Fisheries vessel, the San Discovery, did.
He was proud one Sanford vessel was in the vicinity to respond to the call and assist.
"It's what mariners do at sea," Barratt said.
He said the crew of the Pacinui would have heard that another Sanford boat responded, so "I don't need to get involved".
Talley's Nelson chief executive Tony Hazlett said he was "very thankful" to the crew of the San Discovery for responding to the mayday call.
He hoped the vessel, which was "extensively damaged", could return to sea in the next three to four months.
The factory deck of the ship suffered the most damage.
Hazlett said it was a long time to have the boat out of the fleet, but "it's a lot less than having a vessel sink".
TERRIFYING FOR CREW
As a fireball engulfed the boat yesterday, Louise Kissane and 40 other crew members scrambled to their lifeboats amid "terrifying conditions" in icy, rough waters.
The Columbia was 85 kilometres northeast of the Lyttelton heads when a blaze broke out in the fishmeal hold about 5.20am.
After about two hours on deck in wintry conditions, the 41 crew members, who all escaped injury, were forced to brave the choppy waters and climb onto lifeboats after the captain gave the order to abandon ship.
"Imagine climbing down the side of your ship in rough weather . . . It was pretty scary stuff being out in the middle of nowhere with no land in sight and the weather was quite bad," Kissane, a kitchen assistant, told The Press.
Kissane was preparing for her morning shift when the alarms rang out on the 64-metre factory trawler.
"I heard people running overhead. I just grabbed my jacket and my hat and did what we were supposed to do - head to the deck."
Up on deck, it was dark and cold and "a lot of smoke" filled the air.
"It was rough, it was really windy and cold. The captain was really good; he told everyone what to do and made sure everyone was ready. There was a lot of smoke but I didn't really know how bad it was," Kissane said.
The crew huddled on deck for several hours. Kissane said she never imagined they would have to abandon ship.
"Honestly, I never thought we were going to have to get off. I thought they would put the fire out and we'd be fine.
"We prepare for this hundreds of times but you just never think it's going to happen."
Below them, the boat had burst into a "a fireball from the bow to the stern," Talley's Group managing director Peter Talley said yesterday.
The crew fought the blaze for several hours until their air supplies were exhausted.
The captain, Chris Fitzpatrick, of Nelson, had to abandon the wheelhouse due to "thick, black smoke". He gave the call to abandon the trawler about 7.50am.
The boat had lost its power and ability to steer, and hot spots could be seen along the 64m vessel's hull from the air.
Two rival fishing boats, the Ivan Golubets, owned by Independent Fisheries, and the San Discovery, responded to the Amaltal Columbia's mayday call and arrived at the scene about 8.10am.
Independent Fisheries general manager Mark Allison said the crew of the Ivan Golubets were very experienced and handled the situation well. "The weather conditions were not in our favour. It made it a longer process . . . We had a successful result in that there was no loss of life or injury. That was great."
Competition among companies did not come into play on the water, Allison said.
"It's human life. The safety of the crew was the priority, regardless of what crew you are and what vessel you are".
Talley's Nelson chief executive Tony Hazlett was equally proud of his crew.
"We have had better days, but we are well trained for fires and no-one was hurt so I think they did very well."
Hazlett said the call to flee the ship was not taken lightly.
"When the captain gives the abandon-ship order he has a good reason for doing so."
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."
The crew arrived safely in Lyttelton about 2pm yesterday, where they enjoyed food and drink before being flown back to Nelson. Some of the senior staff would speak to maritime authorities today.
Counselling would be made available for the crew, who had been three weeks into a 45-day trip. The magnitude of what happened on board was still sinking in for many.
"We're just in shock. I don't really know what to say. I'm just really glad everybody is fine," Kissane said. "We're a pretty tough bunch, but we have been shaken. We can't believe this happened."
However, she 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."
The ship was being towed back to Lyttelton harbour last night and would be investigated by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission.
Hazlett said he hoped the ship was "salvageable".
"It's sitting at about a five degree list, but to me it looks very salvageable. We do hope to save the vessel".
In the meantime, the crew members would be deployed to other fishing vessels, Hazlett said.
"It is going to impact [economically] but at the end of the day we just wanted to get the crew off safely".
He 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. I want to thank the community of Lyttelton as well who have been very supportive during this day."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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