Hong Kong arrested seven people and started a criminal investigation after at least 38 people were killed in the city’s worst maritime disaster in four decades.
A boat carrying more than 120 employees and family members of Hongkong Electric Co., controlled by the city’s richest man Li Ka-shing, partially sank after a collision with a commuter ferry on Oct. 1. The boat was heading to Victoria Harbor from Lamma Island, southwest of Hong Kong Island, for a fireworks display to mark China’s National Day.
The government recovered the vessel, named “Lamma IV,” and is conducting an inspection to find out why it sank so rapidly. Rescue divers are continuing a search at the crash site and along the coastline because it’s not clear how many people remain missing, said Sam Hui, a spokesman for the fire department.
“Looking at the damage, and that Lamma IV sank so quickly, the impact was very powerful,” said Prakash Metaparti, an assistant professor of logistics and maritime studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “It looks like either one of them or both of them are going at a good speed and that’s why the impact is so severe.”
The seven people arrested were crew members, including the captains of both vessels, the government said. All of them have been released on bail.
“From the investigation so far, we’ve come to the suspicion that the crew responsible for manning the two vessels had not exercised the care required of them by law,” Tsang Wai- hung, the police commissioner, said at a press conference yesterday. “Our investigation will focus on criminal liability as well as assist the coroner’s court if an inquest is held.”
The death toll is the highest in a single marine accident since at least 1984, according to statistics on the website of Hong Kong’s Marine Department. It may be the most deadly accident since 1971, when Macau-to-Hong Kong ferry “Fat Shan” capsized during Typhoon Rose, killing 88 people, according to the Hong Kong Observatory.
The commuter ferry, operated by Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry Holdings Ltd., was carrying 95 passengers and four crew members, the company said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. A few of the passengers were lightly injured, it said.
The ferry captain is “emotionally depressed,” Nelson Ng, general manager at Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry, said on Cable TV today. The vessel passed its last inspection in September, and the captain has been licensed for 27 years, he said.
More than 1,000 fire department and police officers worked through the night to rescue the injured and recover the dead, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said at a press conference yesterday.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the worst marine accident in our waters,” Leung said. “Every life on that boat is important and precious. That’s why the government needs to use all resources available to save these lives.”
Thirty people were pronounced dead at the scene and eight after arrival at the city’s hospitals, the government said on its website yesterday. Of the 100 passengers taken to five hospitals, three remained in serious or critical condition as of 10 a.m. today.
Rescue efforts took place in the dark, with frogmen diving into the seas while five helicopters shone searchlights near the stricken vessel.
Visibility in the waters around Hong Kong ranged between 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) and 15 kilometers at 8 p.m. on Oct. 1, according to the Hong Kong Observatory and Marine Department..
Though “Hong Kong has heavy sea traffic, there have only been a few accidents,” said Metaparti. These accidents were mostly due to “human errors like going at a higher speed or making a bad professional judgment.”
The government will set up a commission of inquiry to look into the causes of the accident, Leung said.
Hongkong Electric said it has set aside HK$200,000 ($25,800) for the family of each person who died. The company is a unit of Power Assets Holdings Ltd. (6), which is controlled by Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings Ltd. (1038) Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (13), which Li chairs, owns Cheung Kong Infrastructure.
“You don’t have to ask me how I feel,” Li, who visited the injured at the Queen Mary Hospital yesterday, told reporters. “It’s definitely very sad.”
The Li Ka Shing Foundation said it will donate HK$30 million to victims of the accident.
Lamma Island has about six thousand residents, including expatriates who commute from there to Hong Kong’s central business district. The ferry trip to central takes about thirty minutes. After the collision, the commuter ferry docked at the island’s Yung Shue Wan pier.
“The vessel was tilting to the side as water got in, and there are a few injured passengers,” Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry said. “We believe the captain rushed back to the Yung Shue Wan pier to seek help for safety and the injured.”
The ferry’s captain had notified the marine department by radio after the crash, the company said, adding the vessel “did stay at the scene” initially.
“I saw the gash on the front left side and thought it must have hit something,” said Matthew Nicholls, a resident of Lamma Island who was waiting for the ferry around 8:30 p.m on Oct. 1. “There were some people who looked shocked getting off the ferry. Some were panicking, making calls on their phones and others seemed OK.”
Nicholls, a four-year resident of Lamma Island who stayed on the pier for around 45 minutes after the ferry arrived, said the boat seemed around one-third full, and some passengers were wearing life jackets.
A “massive crowd” was waiting for the ferry to Hong Kong island, which lies to Lamma Island’s northeast, Nicholls said. Yesterday, the pier’s railings remained decorated with purple, green, yellow, orange and red rectangular flags saying “Celebrate National Day.”
“Suddenly people started staring at the ferry coming back in,” Nicholls said. “As the night went on I was receiving all these texts asking if I was on the ferry and if I was OK.”
The company has a fleet of 11 vessels plying three routes. The ferries carry 170 to 410 passengers and have a maximum speed of 24 knots, according to its website.
Of the dead, seven were employees of Hongkong Electric and 14 were family and friends, the power company said in a press release emailed to the media late yesterday. The remaining victims await identification, Yuen said.
With the fireworks display scheduled for 9 p.m. on Oct. 1, Hongkong Electric’s boat left Lamma Island at 8:15 p.m. with about 120 employees and family members on board, according to the company’s statement. The boat had capacity for as many as 200 people, it said.
The marine department sets up a restricted area before and during the fireworks display and “a large number of boats” try to get closer for “good viewing points,” said Metaparti of Polytechnic University. Lamma IV may have been trying “to get a good position.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hwee Ann Tan at email@example.com