(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong recovered the boat that was partially sunk in a crash that killed at least 38 people, and started an inspection to find the cause of the city’s worst maritime disaster in four decades.
The “Lamma IV,” carrying more than 120 employees and family members of Hongkong Electric Co., controlled by the city’s richest man Li Ka-shing, collided with a commuter ferry Oct. 1. As rescue divers continued a search at the crash site and along the coastline, the government opened a criminal investigation and announced a commission of inquiry.
The Hong Kong government declared a day of mourning tomorrow and will set up 18 points with condolence books. The death toll is the highest in a single marine accident since at least 1984, according to statistics on the Marine Department website. 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.
“We will investigate how the damage to the boat led to water flooding, and why it sank so fast,” Francis Liu, director of the Marine Department, said in a phone interview with Metro Broadcast Corp. “We’ll also see whether the crew members violated any rules as they navigated.”
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. 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.”
Visibility in the waters around Hong Kong ranged from 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) to 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.”
Police arrested seven 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 Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry Holdings Ltd. vessel that struck the Lamma IV 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.
“Every life on that boat is important and precious,” Leung said. “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.
A large number of boats were trying to get viewing points during the pyrotechnic shows, when part of the harbor is restricted for boats involved in launching the fireworks, said Metaparti of Polytechnic University. Lamma IV may have been trying “to get a good position,” he said.
Rescue efforts took place in the dark, with frogmen diving into the seas while five helicopters shone searchlights near the stricken vessel.
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., which is controlled by Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings Ltd. Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., which Li chairs, owns Cheung Kong Infrastructure.
The Li Ka Shing Foundation said it will donate HK$30 million to victims of the accident.
Flags of companies controlled by Li were lowered to half- staff today at the Cheung Kong Center office building in Central, the city’s business hub, and Hongkong Electric staff observed a moment of silence this morning.
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. “The captain rushed back to the Yung Shue Wan pier to seek help for safety and the injured.”
The ferry’s captain 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.”
Of the dead, seven were employees of Hongkong Electric and 14 were family and friends, the power company said in an e-mailed press release late yesterday. The remaining victims are awaiting identification.