10/02/2012 | 08:36pm US/Eastern
HONG KONG — Police arrested seven crew members from boats that collided in the dark Monday night, killing 38 people, including five children, in the city’s worst maritime disaster in 40 years.
A day later, authorities couldn’t yet 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.
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 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 whether the ferry had deviated from its course or had gone unusually fast, as some Lamma Island residents and ferry passengers had suggested, only by referring to an ongoing investigation.
The struggle to identify victims was made worse 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 captain and two male crew members of the Hong Kong Electric boat and the captain and three 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 disappearing inside 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, she said, one was still missing, along with the 7-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 seven 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 expats — was mobbed Monday and lines for the ferry reached off 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 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, as 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.
The ferry company didn’t respond to requests to comment. Local media reports said the company wouldn’t comment on the crash and that the captain of the boat had become ill and couldn’t discuss it.
Hongkong Electric is owned by Power Assets Holdings Ltd., a member of the Cheung Kong Group that 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, said Canning Fok Kin-ning, the chairman of Hongkong Electric and Mr. Li’s top deputy.
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.
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.
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