The captains of a ferry and a pleasure boat that collided in Hong Kong, killing 38 people in the territory’s worst maritime disaster in decades, were arrested yesterday with five other crew, officials said.
More than 120 passengers and crew were on the Hong Kong Electric company’s vessel to watch a huge National Day fireworks display in Victoria Harbour on Monday evening when the collision occurred near Lamma Island.
Scores of people were thrown into the choppy water and the company vessel sank within minutes, leaving only its bow protruding from the waves.
The stricken ferry limped to Lamma where its shaken, but relatively unharmed passengers disembarked.
“There was not enough time to put on a lifejacket, no time to fasten it. We tried to hold onto something above, but we had no luck and we slipped,” one emotional woman huddled in an emergency blanket told reporters.
Another survivor, clearly overwhelmed, said he had yet to hear any news of his children.
“My two children are missing and I don’t know where they are,” he said.
Survivors were taken by boat to Hong Kong Island, about 3km to the east, where a fleet of ambulances whisked them to hospital.
It was the deadliest maritime accident in the territory since 1971, when a Hong Kong-Macau ferry sank during a typhoon leaving 88 people dead.
Officials said the captain and three other personnel from the ferry had been arrested, along with the captain of the company vessel and two of its crew, for “endangering the safety of others at sea.”
Six of the detainees were released on bail, and the ferry captain was to be released on bail later, they added.
Police chief Tsang Wai-hung said the suspects “did not exercise the care required of them by law to ensure the safety of the vessels they were operating and the people on board.”
Lamma resident Clare Kirkman, who was returning home from Hong Kong Island aboard the public ferry, described scenes of panic and confusion as the craft started to take on water.
“People at the front started screaming and saying there was water coming in, and the boat was tilting to the side,” the 43-year-old Briton said. “Nobody had a clue what we had hit. There was complete panic. Nobody explained anything ... The crew was terrible, useless.”
Twenty-nine people were certified dead at the scene and eight others were pronounced dead on arrival at various hospitals, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) said. More than 100 others were injured.
Leung said he would set up a high-level inquiry into the incident, but dismissed suggestions that Hong Kong needed to overhaul its maritime rules to cope with its growth as a hub of global trade and travel.
“This is definitely an isolated incident. The marine territory of Hong Kong is safe,” he said.
He declared three days of mourning, starting tomorrow.
The Hong Kong Electric vessel was packed with staff members and their families hoping to enjoy a night out on the water watching the fireworks against the territory’s glittering skyline.
Five children were among the dead, officials said.
Rescue teams in boats and helicopters spent the night scouring the sea around the site of the accident for bodies or signs of survivors, while dive teams entered the sunken boat.
“The low visibility and many obstacles on board ... made it difficult for rescue,” the Fire Services Department said in a statement.
The National Day holiday brought thousands of extra visitors to Lamma Island, the third-largest island in the territory.
The Hong Kong Electric vessel was about five minutes into its journey from Lamma to Victoria Harbour when it came into contact with the ferry, operated by the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry company.
Hong Kong Electric is owned by Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠), whose son issued a public statement yesterday promising HK$200,000 (US$25,800) to the families of each of the deceased.