Investigators Probe Hong Kong Ferry Disaster

A close up of the damage to the Lamma IV tells the story of a powerful collision. by trey.menefee

HONG KONG–Investigators are probing a number of possible causes to Hong Kong’s worst maritime disaster in 40 years, including whether the high-speed ferry that collided with a boat packed with families on Monday had been going faster than usual or deviated from its normal course.

As residents on Thursday participated in mourning rites across the city and ships sounded long blasts from their horns to honor the 38 crash victims, marine experts tried to parse clues as to what occurred during the accident, which took place on a clear night. Among the more than 120 people on board the boat, which quickly sank after the collision with the ferry, nearly one-third died, including five children.

On Thursday evening, 15 people rescued from the boat remain hospitalized, with a 10-year-old girl in critical condition.

“It was astonishing that so many people were killed in this accident, in such a modern city,” said Chung Tung-tong, general secretary of the Merchant Navy Officers’ Guild Hong Kong. “If these two vessels collided in good weather and the engine wasn’t in trouble, there must be someone who did something wrong,” said Mr. Chung, who worked as a captain operating ferries between Hong Kong and the nearby gambling mecca of Macau for more than 30 years.

The crash occurred over a holiday weekend, when crowds swelled across Lamma Island, a popular destination for tourists and expatriate commuters. Some Lamma residents noted that the site of the crash suggested the commuter ferry had veered off its normal course, perhaps in an effort to shave time off its usual route and clear the island more quickly. Several regular ferry passengers said they thought it was traveling unusually quickly. There is no speed limit in the waters around where the crash occurred.

Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry Holdings, which operated the ferry, said Thursday the boat didn’t deviate from its course and declined to comment about its speed, saying that further investigations were still needed. The company said earlier that the vessel had passed government inspections last month. Local utility Hongkong Electric Co., which owned the sunken boat, said its maintenance has followed marine-department requirements.

Both these questions will be addressed in the city’s ongoing investigation into the crash, the marine department said Thursday. Other issues that will be tackled include questions over why the Hongkong Electric boat sank so quickly, as well as whether there was sufficient safety equipment on board, and if any of the crews had violated maritime laws, the department said. Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry said its crew and captain were interviewed by the police.

While Hong Kong has long been a bustling port, over the years, land reclamation has shrunk Hong Kong’s already-congested waterways, while a recent boom in yachts, junks and other pleasure boats has turned the harbor into a virtual marine highway. In the wake of Monday’s accidents, experts and observers have questioned whether the city’s teeming harbor and nearby waters have grown simply too crowded. Large container ships aren’t allowed into Victoria Harbour.

As traffic in Hong Kong waters has grown in recent years, so have the number of accidents and collisions. Last year, there were 351 accidents in Hong Kong waters, of which nearly 60% were collisions. By contrast in 2007, there were 278 accidents, of which 53% were collisions.

“More boats equal more inexperienced boaters on the water,” said Jules Tidmarsh, an airline pilot and boating enthusiast who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years.

Because of the nature of the damages, several marine experts said Thursday it seemed very likely that the commuter ferry had struck the Hongkong Electric boat. The collision ripped a hole into the Hongkong Electric boat’s stern, sending water flooding its internal cabins, they said, which made the back of the boat heavier, causing the boat to tip upright and sink.

The fact that the Hongkong Electric boat sustained significantly more damage wasn’t surprising, experts said, given that the boat was smaller than the ferry, which could hold up to 400 passengers. In addition, the ferry was a catamaran, which have two hulls for faster sailing speeds and also tend to ride higher in the water.

Catamaran hulls are “quite sharp, just like a knife,” said Lu Xiangjun, who works for Braemar, a marine surveying and technical consultancy, adding that such vessels could cause more extensive damage in accidents, particularly if traveling at high speeds.

On Thursday, experts and lawmakers called for the Hong Kong government to upgrade the current marine traffic-control system, used to monitor vessel movements, to cope with growing traffic.

“It’s terrible. A lot of ferries, high-speed catamarans, fishing boats and small cargo ships,” said Mr. Chung, the ferry captain. He said that the number of high-speed ferries, which travel between 25 and 45 knots, has risen steadily as tourism from nearby cities in China’s Guangdong province has boomed.

The increase in high-speed ferry trips have also contributed to more frequent accidents. In May, a Hong Kong-Macau hydrofoil slammed into a speedboat, killing the small boat’s operator. Last October, nearly 80 people were injured when a catamaran crashed into a concrete pillar minutes after leaving the pier in one of Hong Kong’s many outlying islands.

Still, Hong Kong remains one of the world’s safest maritime hubs, given tough regulations on ship maintenance and port management. “It’s a one-off incident and should be treated as such,” said Prakash Metaparti, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He said the investigation would likely find the accident was a case of human error.

-By Te-Ping Chen. (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.