Details Trickle In, But Hong Kong Wants Answers

At approximately 8:20pm, the Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry-operated passenger ferry, Sea Smooth, pictured here, reportedly slammed into the starboard side of the Lamma IV, a staff supplier owned by Hongkong Electric, causing it to sink almost immediately. Photo (c) trey.menefee

By Te-Ping Chen, Kathy Chu and Isabella Steger

HONG KONG–Police arrested seven crew members from boats that collided Monday night in Hong Kong, killing 38 people, including five children, in the city’s worst maritime disaster in 40 years.

A day later, authorities couldn’t say how exactly the collision occurred, how many people were missing and how such mayhem could have occurred in one of Asia’s safest and most modern cities.

Damage to the Sea Smooth can be seen on the port bow. Photo (c) trey.menefee

Many of the victims remained unidentified, and families and friends of the missing searched hospitals and the city morgue for news. Authorities were still searching the area where the boats collided about a mile from Lamma Island, which lies about two miles from Hong Kong.

The crash occurred Monday night around 8:30 p.m. when a commuter ferry collided with a boat filled with employees of one of the city’s electric companies that was on its way to watch the city’s National Day fireworks show in its iconic Victoria Harbor.

The two boats collided in choppy waters and the commuter ferry, owned by Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry Holdings Ltd., suffered damage to its bow but was able to make it to shore. Some of its passengers suffered minor injuries but none were hospitalized.

The other boat, owned by Hongkong Electric Co., was upended almost immediately, its bow sticking nearly straight up into the air. Passengers were quickly submerged and rescuers struggled with darkness and debris as they searched the boat and surrounding waters for victims. Hongkong Electric said there were 120 people on the boat, well below its 200-person capacity.

At a news conference Tuesday, authorities responded to questions about whether the ferry had deviated from its course or had gone unusually fast, as some Lamma Island residents and ferry passengers had suggested, by referring to a continuing investigation.

The struggle to identify victims was exacerbated by the lack of a passenger list for the boat, government officials said Tuesday evening. They said 101 people had been sent to hospitals, 66 had been discharged, while two remained in critical condition.

A hotline set up by the city for questions about the missing was overwhelmed with hundreds of calls, according to government officials at the news conference.

The 56-year-old male captain and two male crew members of the Hongkong Electric boat and the 54-year-old captain and three male crew members of the commuter ferry were arrested on suspicion of endangering the safety of others at sea. They were released on bail pending further inquiries. Under Hong Kong’s legal system, people can be arrested without being charged.

The Hongkong Electric boat was filled with employees, their family members and other guests of the company. Some of the people took a tour of the company’s Lamma Winds, a wind-power station, and Lamma Power Station and then dined at the power station before leaving to see the fireworks.

One man outside the Kwai Chung Public Mortuary, who gave his name only as Mr. Lee, said that his sister had gone to see the fireworks with a group of friends, one of whom was a Hongkong Electric employee. His sister uploaded photos of the tour to Facebook about 30 minutes before the crash, he said.

Mr. Lee and seven relatives searched all night for his sister at the pier and at three area hospitals. “We found no information about her so this is the last place we went,” he said, before entering the mortuary.

Another woman visiting the mortuary, who didn’t give her name, said she couldn’t sleep Monday night because her husband’s three cousins were on the boat that capsized. As of Tuesday afternoon, she said, one was still missing, along with the seven-year-old daughter of a relative.

The crash occurred during one of the biggest holiday periods of the year, when tourists swarm Hong Kong, more than doubling the city’s 7 million population. National Day, on Oct. 1, celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Lamma–which can be reached only by boat and is popular with tourists and expatriates–was mobbed Monday and lines for the ferry stretched off the pier and into the village’s streets. Some residents who have lived there for a decade or more said they had never seen such queues.

Some people on the ferry said they believed it was traveling faster than usual, possibly to help clear the crowds from the island, when the collision occurred.

Passengers also questioned why the ferry continued on to shore after the collision, leaving the other boat behind. A spokesman for Hongkong Electric said: “After our boat was hit and started to sink, the boat that hit us then drove back to the pier.”

Others said that when the ferry pulled away from the other boat, water gushed inside, forcing it to go to shore. They also said parts of the ceiling inside the ferry were dislodged and fell, and the crash threw passengers from their seats and sent them scrambling for the exits.

David MacFarlane, who was on the ferry with his wife and two sons, said that the captain made the right decision. “The captain kept going and I’m glad that he did. If he hadn’t, God knows how many people would have survived,” he said.

Nelson Ng, general manager of Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry Holdings, said the company has yet to have a detailed discussion with the captain about what had happened.

“We had a brief talk with the captain, but he is currently emotionally unstable after experiencing such a tragic incident,” and the company has been unable to conduct an inquiry with him, said Mr. Ng.

He said the ferry, Sea Smooth, initially remained at the scene after the collision but then decided to head for the pier as it was taking on water, with five passengers injured.

The company will fully cooperate with the police investigation, he added.

Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry Holdings operates ferries between Central and Yung Shue Wan, on the north side of Lamma Island, and Sok Kwu Wan on the south side of Lamma.

Hongkong Electric is owned by Power Assets Holdings Ltd., a member of the Cheung Kong Group, which is controlled by Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man and one of Hong Kong’s dominant business tycoons.

Cheung Kong said it will pay 200,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$25,800) to each family who lost somebody in the accident. Meanwhile, Hongkong Electric said the company had been accompanying families to hospitals and was arranging counseling sessions. “Cheung Kong Centre has already lowered group flags to half-mast to express the group’s sorrow and condolences,” said Canning Fok Kin-ning, the chairman of Hongkong Electric and Mr. Li’s top deputy. “A high-level coordination team has been set up to coordinate the aftermath.”

Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying, who called the accident an “isolated incident” and assured reporters that Hong Kong remained a strong maritime hub, said the city would mark a three-day period of mourning starting Thursday.

The South China Morning Post said the crash was the worst maritime disaster in Hong Kong since 1971, when a ferry traveling between Hong Kong and Macau sank in a typhoon. The newspaper said the latest crash would rank as the fifth-worst in the city’s history since the 1900s.

While ferries continued to deposit camera-toting tourists on Lamma on Tuesday, a sense of shock pervaded in Hong Kong itself, where mourners left flowers at the Lamma Island ferry pier and burned paper money as offerings for the dead.

The search-and-rescue operation will continue for at least two more days, officials said.

(c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.