(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. yesterday. 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 each vessel, the government said in a statement on its website today. Six have been 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 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 late today.
“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.
“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.”
Thirty people were pronounced dead at the scene, and eight after arrival at the city’s hospitals, the government said on its website today. Of the more than 100 passengers taken to five hospitals, four remained in serious or critical condition as of 7:10 p.m. today.
Tsang said more people may be detained to assist the probe. The government also said the companies weren’t able to provide a list of passengers on board the two vessels.
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 yesterday at 8:00 p.m., according to the Hong Kong Observatory and Marine Department.
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 today. “You don’t have to ask me how I feel. It’s definitely very sad,” he told reporters. “I left Hong Kong yesterday. I returned today 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 a 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 ferry managed to dock at the Island’s Yung Shue Wan pier yesterday.
“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 yesterday. “There were some people who looked shocked getting off the ferry. Some were panicking, making calls on their phones and others seemed OK.”
The ferry, operated by Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry Holdings Ltd., was carrying about 100 passengers, a few of whom were lightly injured and have been released from hospital, government broadcaster RTHK said on its Chinese-language website, citing an unidentified spokesman for the company.
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. The pier’s railings today 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 ferry operator will publish a statement tonight, its spokesman Nelson Ng said by telephone.
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, Yuen said at a conference. The remaining victims are awaiting identification, he said.
With the fireworks display scheduled for 9 p.m., 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.
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 today.