A pleasure boat on a trip to watch holiday fireworks collided with a ferry and sank off Hong Kong, leaving 36 people dead and sparking a frantic rescue effort, officials said Tuesday.
More than 120 passengers and crew were on the Hong Kong Electric company’s vessel to watch the 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 and the company vessel sank within minutes, leaving only its bow protruding from the waves.
“Twenty eight were certified dead at the scene while eight others were certified dead upon arrival (at) hospitals,” the government said in a statement, adding that over 100 people were injured.
“Rescue action will continue as Fire Service Department (FSD) cannot rule out that there are still people inside the vessel or missing,” it said.
All of the dead and most of the injured are believed to have been passengers or crew of the Hong Kong Electric vessel, which company officials said was packed with staff and their families.
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 FSD said.
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.
“After 10 minutes out a boat crashed into ours from the side at very high speed. The rear… started to sink,” a survivor told the South China Morning Post after he was brought to shore.
“I suddenly found myself deep under the sea. I swam hard and tried to grab a life buoy. I don’t know where my two kids are.”
Hong Kong chief Leung Chun-ying said the government had mobilised all its resources to respond to the accident.
“All our emergency rescue teams are concentrated there… We can see that bit by bit, the people in the water are being rescued,” he told reporters at a pier as the injured were being put into ambulances.
Later, after visiting a hospital where a number of those hurt had been taken, he said: “We will investigate… we must understand the reason for this incident.”
The Hong Kong Electric vessel was about five minutes into its journey from Lamma to Victoria harbour when it collided with the ferry, operated by the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry company.
Hong Kong Electric director of operations S.S. Yuen blamed the driver of the ferry for the collision.
“About five minutes after the boat left, a ferry crashed into our boat, and according to the crew the ferry left immediately and did not stop,” he told reporters.
“The crew reported to the police immediately but the rear of the boat had begun to sink.”
Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry officials were unavailable to comment, but a spokeswoman told Cable TV that “several” passengers on the ferry were injured.
Police said the collision was under investigation and refused to comment on its possible causes.
The twin-hulled ferry involved in the collision was moored at one of Lamma’s piers on Tuesday, with a gaping hole on its left hull.
It was believed to have been travelling from Hong Kong to Lamma when the collision occurred close to its destination, allowing it to dock and disembark its passengers before it took on too much water.
Marine Department senior official Chung Siu-man told reporters it was too early to determine which vessel was at fault.
“If there is a collision, usually the boat would stay to offer assistance to the other boat, but according to the initial report we received, some passengers on the ferry were injured,” he said.
The national day holiday brought thousands of extra visitors to Lamma island, the third-largest island in the southern Chinese territory, with a population of only around 5,000 people. -By Stephen Coates