FIFTEEN people were rescued from the River Thames at Mapledurham Lock after smoke began pouring out of their boat.
But far from being a genuine emergency, the rescue was actually a training exercise for Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service in water safety.
Crews from the fire service, along with South Central ambulance service, the National Police Air Service helicopter, the Hazardous Area Response Team and Berkshire Lowland Search and Rescue took part in the event on Thursday last week.
They were helped by volunteers from Thames River Cruises, the British Marine/Passenger Boat Association, Hobbs of Henley and the Environment Agency.
The exercise saw several people jump into the chilly water after their boat “crashed” and caught fire.
Other passengers on the boat, the Thames River Cruise vessel Caversham Princess, stood on the decks and screamed for help as smoke emerged from a window.
The fire service’s water rescue unit was tasked with rescuing the passengers while also getting on to the boat to extinguish the fire.
More than 100 people gathered to watch from the bank as the NPAS helicopter circled the site several times before hovering above the water and dropping life vest and inflatables to the stricken passengers.
The rescue unit then began to rescue people from the water on its boat before returning them to the shore.
During one run, the rescuers accidentally sent several survivors tumbling back into the river after the dingy they were towing was capsized by wash from the engine.
The event was one of several exercises at venues across the county to raise awareness of how people can stay safe around water.
Jeremy James, station commander for Caversham Road fire station, said: “The idea was to put ourselves under pressure and see how we would deal with multiple people in the water as well as showing the public what happens when we deal with an exercise like this.
“We don’t get to train like this all the time. It took five months to plan and when you have people in the freezing cold water it really put our crews under pressure.
“We have to start doing something to reduce accidental drowning and this was to raise awareness.”
Mark Scaife, whose son Michael, 20, drowned in the Jubilee River in Datchet in August, attended the event.
He has ampaigned to have a footbridge near where his son died renamed “Michael’s Bridge” as a memorial and to educate people about water safety.
Mr Scaife said: “I’m sure Michael wasn’t aware of the dangers when he went in the river and it’s very important that people learn the water isn’t as safe as it looks on a hot sunny day.”