12 Sep 2012

Crew tell of desperate attempts to fight blaze

11:22 pm on 12 September 2012

Rescued crew members from a burning trawler forced to abandon ship have described their desperate attempts to fight the blaze below decks.

Maritime New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Centre said the fire began on the New Zealand registered Amaltal Columbia about 5.20am on Wednesday and a mayday was issued at 5.40am.

Crew from the Amaltal Columbia return to port on a rescue fishing vessel.

Crew from the Amaltal Columbia return to port on a rescue fishing vessel. Photo: RNZ

Forty-one crew and two fishery observers on the trawler owned by Talley's took to life rafts about 7.50am, about 70km north-east of Lyttelton Heads.

About 30 people on board arrived in Lyttelton about 2.30pm after fishing vessels the Ivan Golubets and the San Discovery, a helicopter and an Air Force Orion went to their rescue.

The crew fought the blaze on the 64-metre-long trawler for about three hours in darkness before deciding to abandon ship.

Crew member Scott Madden described the desperate effort to fight the fire.

"Forward deckies ran for it to see what it was and where it was coming from to try and grab what we could - extinguishers, hoses - to try and put it out. It got too much for us and we had to abandon it.

"I was down low, there was smoke everywhere and I had to get out, I couldn't do any more."

Louise Kissane, who works in the kitchen, said the crew assembled on deck in freezing temperatures.

"It was rough, it was really windy and cold. But we all got in our suits straight away and just got ready. Everyone's just in shock, really shaken up and can't believe it's happened."

Talley's Nelson chief executive Tony Hazlett told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme on Wednesday it appears the fire broke out in the bagging room of the fishmeal plant, although the cause is unknown.

Trawler on way back to port

The trawler is being towed back to Lyttleton by the San Discovery, which has about a dozen of the crew on board, and is expected to arrive about 2am on Thursday.

The Amaltal Columbia is reported to be carrying at least 200,000 litres of fuel. The fire was in the hold and had been sealed off to prevent the flames from spreading.

Talley's Nelson chief executive Tony Hazlett said the crew is experienced in fire drills and handled the emergency very well.

Mr Hazlett said the decision was made to evacuate because the fire could not be controlled and there was a lot of smoke. The trawler set sail from Nelson had been at sea for about three weeks. It was due back in 20 days.

Mr Hazlett said he hoped jobs could be found for most if not all the crew on other vessels while the Amaltal Columbia was being repaired.

TAIC to investigate

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission says an investigator will meet the Amaltal Columbia when it docks, but an inquiry into what caused the blaze is expected to take a year to complete.

A spokesperson for the commission said an examination of the ship would begin on Thursday once it has been made safe.

The spokesperson said another investigator would travel to Nelson to begin interviews with company officials and crew members flown home on Thursday.

The inquiry will try to establish the cause of the fire and identify any lessons that might prevent the chance of a similar event happening again, as well as review the way the situation was handled on board, and during the rescue and recovery operations.