Photo: AP Images
Oct. 3 (Bloomberg) — 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 passengers, employees and family members of Power Assets Holdings Ltd.’s Hongkong Electric Co. unit collided with a commuter ferry at about 8:20 p.m. 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 seven people arrested were crew members, including the captains of both vessels, the government said in a statement on its website yesterday. Six were released on bail and the 54- year-old captain of the commuter ferry will be freed on bail later, it said.
“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. “Our investigation will focus on criminal liability as well as assist the coroner’s court if an inquest is held.”
The vessel, named “Lamma IV”, will be searched for survivors for the last time after it’s dragged upright, and efforts to comb the surrounding waters will continue for the next two days, said Chan Chor-kam, director of the fire services.
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 afternoon.
“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.”
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.
“Looking at the damage and that Lamma IV sank so quickly, the impact was very powerful,” said Prakash Metaparti, an assistant professor on 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.”
“Five minutes after the boat departed, another vessel crashed into the middle of our boat,” Yuen Sui-see, Hongkong Electric’s director of operations, said in a statement. “We had originally arranged for our employees to view the fireworks.”
30 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 more than 100 passengers taken to five hospitals, four remained in serious or critical condition as of 7:10 p.m. yesterday.
Rescue efforts took place in the dark, with frogmen diving into the seas while five helicopters shone searchlights near the stricken vessel, which was partially submerged.
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..
“It’s surprising such an incident occurred,” said Metaparti. “Even Hong Kong has heavy sea traffic, there have only been a few accidents.” 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.
Victor Li, an executive director of Power Assets and heir to Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, said the company is cooperating with the police and has set aside HK$200,000 ($25,800) for the relatives of each person who died.
Li Ka-shing visited the injured at the Queen Mary Hospital in the afternoon yesterday. “You don’t have to ask me how I feel. It’s definitely very sad,” he told reporters. “I left Hong Kong” on Oct. 1. “I returned right after I’ve learned what happened.”
The Li Ka Shing Foundation will donate HK$30 million to victims of the accident, according to RTHK’s Chinese-language website.
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 30 minutes. After the collision, the commuter ferry managed to dock at the Island’s Yung Shue Wan pier on Oct. 1.
The 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 late yesterday. A few of the passengers were lightly injured, it said.
The ferry’s captain had notified the marine department through radio after the crash, the company said, adding the vessel “did stay at the scene and other ships may have been passing by.”
“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 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 company has a fleet of 11 vessels plying three routes. The ferries carry between 170 and 410 passengers and have a maximum speed of 24 knots, according to the 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, HK 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, the company said.
The marine department sets up 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 could be trying “to get a good position.”
China’s President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice President Xi Jinping “expressed condolence over the deadly ship collision in Hong Kong,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday.
–With assistance from Joshua Fellman in New York, Richard Frost and Mohammed Hadi in Hong Kong and William Bi in Beijing. Editors: Nathaniel Espino, Joshua Fellman
To contact the reporters on this story: Natasha Khan in Hong Kong at [email protected]; Aibing Guo in Hong Kong at [email protected]; Fion Li in Hong Kong at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bruce Grant at [email protected]
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