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38 dead in HK boat disaster; 7 arrested

The partially submerged Lamma IV as seen yesterday morning while rescue operations were in progress. At least 38 people - five of them children - died when it collided with a passenger ferry on Monday night. The tragedy was Hong Kong's worst maritime disaster in 41 years. (PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE)

Publication Date : 03-10-2012


The night began with the promise of seeing the heavens light up with fireworks.

It ended with at least 38 people - five of them children - dying in the cold, dark sea when two boats collided in Hong Kong's worst maritime disaster in 41 years.

In the aftermath of Monday's tragedy, seven crew members have been arrested and a committee of inquiry will be established. Questions are also being raised about the safety of the city's waterways, among the world's busiest.

Details of the tragedy trickled out slowly yesterday. Hong Kong Electric, a utilities company owned by tycoon Li Ka-shing, had arranged an excursion on Monday night for staff members and their families to tour its power plant on Lamma Island, and then to take its vessel Lamma IV to watch the 9pm fireworks, a HK$6 million (US$774,000) extravaganza.

But barely five minutes out, at 8:23pm, it collided with a small passenger ferry from the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry Holdings on its regular 30-minute route between Central and Lamma Island - and quickly sank. So far, rescuers have pulled 131 people and bodies from the water.

A grim-faced Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying yesterday announced that a committee of "credibility and independence" would be established to investigate the accident, and to recommend future safety precautions.

But when asked if Hong Kong's reputation as a maritime hub would be affected, he said tersely: "This is definitely an isolated incident. The maritime system of Hong Kong is safe."

Leung declared three days of mourning, starting tomorrow.

Blame, at least for the time being, has been put on the crew. Seven members - four from one vessel, three from the other - have been arrested. "Those operating the vessels are required to do so in a safe manner," said police commissioner Tsang Wai Hung. "We suspect they did not fulfil those requirements."

While the small ferry was damaged in the collision and was able to reach the pier 1km away, the Lamma IV went down fast.

As it listed 90 deg to its left, with its blue bow sticking out of the water, screaming passengers slid down the deck, bodies atop bodies, plunging into the water, said survivors.

"It was like the Titanic, people were crushing one another," a technician called Li who was with his wife and three-year-old son told reporters.

The vessel sank within 10 minutes, trapping many in its steel carcass. Some survivors said they escaped by breaking windows and thrashing their way out.

While the accident site is not known for busy water traffic, Monday saw many passenger ferries, private leisure boats and fishing vessels out to catch the fireworks. Some experts also said that Hong Kong may need to review its marine traffic systems, as vessel traffic increases and waterways narrow due to land reclamation along the harbour.


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