'Just hang on': Family's fight for survival after boat fire
FORCED to abandon a flaming, sinking charter boat, a Gladstone family spent yesterday morning clinging on to the side of a dory boat.
But within a few minutes, the tender boat also began taking on water.
This was the start of a two-hour at sea ordeal, where rescue authorities were called in to save 14 people in waters near Rock Cod Shoal.
The group, which included sons, nephews, brothers, cousins and grandchildren, were out on a four-day fishing trip on board the MV Norval.
Kevin Alexander, who was also the father of the boat's skipper, was one of those participating in the holiday.
The ordeal started an hour-and-a-half after initial departure, where one person smelt smoke.
"Within five minutes, we jumped down in to the engine room and checked her out," Mr Alexander said.
"We tried to get the fire extinguished but it was going up and stacked too quickly."
Mr Alexander also said evacuating to the smaller boat was the hardest part of the ordeal.
"The tender boat was blowing up and dropping - blokes trying to get the older blokes off."
"It was pretty hard but we got off (the boat)."
He said no-one got hurt while trying to get off the MV Norval and the whole episode took 10 minutes from fire to evacuation.
"We got smashed round a bit though - we all just gathered around and hung on to one another."
One man in his 70s had a sore leg during the ordeal, so the other men helped him stay afloat in the water.
"We laid him across the bottom of the (tender boat) when it was upside down," Mr Alexander said.
"(The rest of us) hung on to the side of it."
The group waited to be rescued in the cold waters, battling waves of up to two metres.
However, Mr Alexander didn't fear for his life during the ordeal.
"You don't think of that - just hang on," he said.
Once rescue helicopters located them, there were cheers from all involved and everyone was in good spirits.
"They were putting their thumbs up and doing a bit of 'wahooing'," Mr Alexander said.
"I think they thought they were given a second chance (in life)."
All the passenger's personal belongings, including laptop computers, plane tickets and wallets, were lost in the fire.
Emergency services were dispatched to the scene shortly after receiving the signal from the EPIRB safety beacon.
Gladstone Police inspector Darren Somerville said water police crews were able to respond quickly as a result.
"Luckily for them, and for us, water police weren't far away," Insp Somerville said.
He said it took crews more than an hour to reach the sunken boat's location.
All crew and passengers on board were wearing life jackets at the time of the sinking.
When rescue crews arrived, winds were blowing 15 to 20 knots. "Conditions weren't great," Insp Somerville said.
The man with the sore leg was winched on board the RACQ Capricorn Rescue Helicopter with suspected hypothermia symptoms.
He was then transported to Gladstone Hospital, with the other 13 transferred on to the Water Police vessel.
They returned to the VMR Gladstone dock at around midday, where they were checked by Queensland Ambulance Service paramedics.
After initial checks on shore, two more men were transported to Gladstone Hospital with minor injuries.
Mr Alexander had nothing but praise for emergency services.
"I can say enough how good the rescue was for everyone," he said. "The authorities did a top job."
He also sympathised with boat owner Ron Murphy. "I feel sorry for Ronny - it was a beautiful old boat and it's gone now."
VMR Gladstone chief control Michael McAullay praised the group for following maritime safety procedures.
"It proved everything happened as it should do during a life-threatening situation," Mr McAullay said.
"They all had lifejackets on - it was unfortunate the safety vessel that they had ended up turning over."
An investigation involving police, federal and state maritime safety officers will be tasked with finding the cause of the fire.