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Ferry crash raises Hong Kong harbour questions
by Staff Writers
Hong Kong (AFP) Oct 2, 2012

Hong Kong has thrived as Asia's throbbing transport hub, but a deadly ferry accident on the busy National Day holiday has raised questions about safety on the city's frenetic harbour.

A total of 37 people were killed and scores injured when a passenger ferry collided near Lamma island with a vessel carrying company employees on a pleasure cruise to watch holiday fireworks on Monday evening.

It was the deadliest maritime accident in the territory since 1971, when 88 people were killed as a Hong Kong-Macau ferry sank during a typhoon.

The Asian financial centre is one of the world's busiest ports, with more than 425,000 vessels arriving and departing in 2010, according to official figures.

On any given day, scores of cargo ships can be seen moored in clusters around the port, and at night the horns of passing leviathan container vessels echo towards the city.

But fatal accidents are rare on Victoria Harbour's crowded waters, despite high-speed hydrofoils vying for space with red-sailed tourist junks, luxury private yachts and the 100-year-old Star Ferries that connect Hong Kong to Kowloon.

Researchers say that while it remains one of the world's safest ports, increased vessel traffic and risks associated with land reclamation works along the harbour front call for urgent government attention.

"People will start querying whether Hong Kong's marine traffic management has been kept up to pace," Albert Lai, the founding chairman of think-tank The Professional Commons and a trained civil engineer told AFP.

"It certainly affects Hong Kong's international reputation as a shipping hub," he added, calling for a review of marine traffic systems in the former British colony.

Despite the importance of marine transport to the city's seven million population, passengers said the ferry crew involved in Monday night's incident appeared to have no training on how to respond to such an emergency.

"The crew was terrible, useless. They just stood around as we were putting the life jackets on... The crew didn't seem to know what was going on," Clare Kirkman, a 43-year-old Briton who has lived on Lamma for 10 years, told AFP on Tuesday.

"The worst thing is that they seemed more concerned with getting the life jacket from us when we got to the pier. It was a good 10 or 15 minutes until we got to the ferry pier but I didn't see any ambulances or police.

"It was a quiet ferry but it was concerning the ferry people weren't more helpful. God forbid if it had been a school ferry."

Residents of Lamma -- a sleepy, car-free island to the east of Hong Kong which is inundated with thousands of day trippers on weekends -- expressed anger at the number of ferries put on to cater for the holiday crowds.

"I have seen ferries back-to-back but this was just ridiculous. I don't think they should be able to bring so many people to the island," said Kay Travers, a Lamma resident of 18 years.

Officials said the incident was still under investigation and have refused to speculate about the cause of the accident. Six people were arrested, three crew from each vessel, said the territory's security chief Lai Tung-kwok.

All of the dead and most of the injured were aboard the party boat which was taking staff and families of power company Hong Kong Electric on a cruise to watch the fireworks.

The single-hulled vessel with a capacity of 200 people sank within minutes of the impact, leaving only its blue bow poking above the choppy waves.

Shipping experts say that given the intensity of traffic, the rate of fatal incidents in Hong Kong is low.

But Lai pointed out that water traffic had risen significantly in recent years as soaring accommodation prices on Hong Kong drove more and more people to live on outlying islands such as Lamma.

He said the hundreds of hectares (acres) of land reclaimed along Victoria Harbour over the past decade made journeys on small boats more perilous, as they were pushed into lanes used by powerful high-speed ferries.

"The harbour has become smaller, making the waves generated by ferries crossing the harbour higher and making the water more choppy," he said.

Asked if the accident damaged the port's reputation, Hong Kong's chief executive Leung Chun-ying told AFP: "This is definitely an isolated incident. The marine territory of Hong Kong is safe."

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Captains held after ferry crash
Hong Kong (AFP) Oct 2, 2012 - The captains of a ferry and a pleasure boat that collided in Hong Kong, killing 38 people in the city's worst maritime disaster in decades, were arrested Tuesday with five other crew, officials said.

More than 120 passengers and crew were on a Hong Kong Electric company vessel to watch a huge National Day fireworks display in Victoria Harbour Monday evening when the collision occurred near Lamma island.

Scores of people were thrown into the choppy water from the company boat, which sank within minutes, leaving only its bow protruding from the waves.

The stricken ferry Sea Smooth 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 from the Hong Kong Electric vessel told reporters.

Another survivor, clearly overwhelmed, said he had yet to hear any news of his children.

Survivors were taken by boat to Hong Kong island, some three kilometres (two miles) 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 told AFP.

"Nobody had a clue what we had hit. There was complete panic. Nobody explained anything... The crew was terrible, useless."

Authorities said 30 people were certified dead at the scene and eight were pronounced dead on arrival at various hospitals. More than 100 others were injured.

Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying said he would set up a high-level enquiry into the incident but dismissed suggestions the city needed to overhaul its maritime rules to cope with its growth as a global trade and travel hub.

"This is definitely an isolated incident. The marine territory of Hong Kong is safe," he said.

The Beijing-backed leader, whose new government has been rocked by scandals and protests against unpopular policies, declared three days of mourning starting Thursday.

The Hong Kong Electric vessel was packed with staff and their families hoping to enjoy a night out on the water watching the fireworks against the city's glittering skyline. Five children were among the dead, officials said.

"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, which is the third-largest island in the southern Chinese territory but has a population of only around 5,000 people.

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 (HKKF) company.


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