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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

No fast answers to Hong Kong's fatal ferry crash

Posted to Far East Maritime (by on October 3, 2012

Harrowing accounts of the moments after two ferries collided in Hong Kong on Monday night are being played out in the local media.

Hong Kong woke up on Tuesday morning to the horrifying news that at least 24 people had been killed and dozens injured following the ferry collision.

That figure quickly rose to 38 as more bodies were pulled from the sunken Lamma IV ferry that went down after the crash. High-speed catamaran Sea Smooth managed to limp to shore with its bows badly smashed.

The Lamma IV was filled with employees of Hong Kong Electric and their families and was en route to Victoria Harbour a short distance away to watch the spectacular National Day fireworks display (Oct 1 is the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949).

At 8.23pm Lamma IV was rammed on the port side. Witnesses describe a massive impact that threw passengers violently around the cabin or overboard. Panicked and disoriented, the passengers struggled to make their way out of the stricken vessel.

But for many people on the ferry, time ran out. The collision appears to have torn open watertight areas in the stern and the ferry began taking water. Shockingly, it stood on its tail and sank within two minutes, witnesses said, leaving more than 120 passengers little time to find lifejackets or the exits. Divers found many of the bodies trapped inside the vessel.

Police have arrested seven people – the captains of both ferries and other crew – and have promised a thorough investigation. Despite the tragic loss of life, the sweeping arrests will not make the investigation any easier, and probably scare crew members into silence.

It is the worst maritime disaster in Hong Kong in 40 years. The deadliest occurred on August 16, 1971, when the Hong Kong-Macau ferry, Fat Shan, sank during Typhoon Rose, killing 88 passengers and crew. Only three people survived.

More recently, the oil rig supply vessel Neftegaz-67 collided with mainland bulk carrier Yao Hai on March 22, 2008, off Lantau Island. Eighteen crew from the supply vessel died.

Following a lengthy investigation and court proceedings, both captains and the two pilots on board the bulk carrier were jailed. However, the cargo ship captain and one of the pilots were freed on appeal. The sentences of the Neftegaz captain and the chief pilot were later reduced pending an appeal in January.

Hong Kong’s relationship with the sea is a long one, with hundreds of islands scattered across the territory and a vibrant fishing industry. Thousands of vessel arrivals and departures have made the city a container shipping hub port and a busy transshipment centre.

The Marine Department has the procedures in place and the traffic controls to prevent collisions, so even with some of the busiest waters in the world, fatal accidents should not be regarded as inevitable. There will be no fast answers to what is certain to be a drawn out inquiry, but as with all disasters, the lessons learned via an investigation are vital in preventing one happening again.

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