6 crew arrested in deadly Hong Kong boat collision

Associated Press
Relatives of the victims throw paper money Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 as they pay tribute to the ill-fated people aboard a boat that sank Monday night near Lamma Island, off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong Island. The boat packed with revelers on a long holiday weekend collided with a ferry and sank off Hong Kong, killing at least 36 people and injuring dozens, authorities said.  (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
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HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police on Tuesday arrested six crew members from two boats in a collision that killed 38 holiday revelers, but offered no theory about how the vessels ran into each other on a clear night in one of the safest and most regulated waterways in Asia.

The Monday night crash was Hong Kong's deadliest accident in more than 15 years, and the worst maritime accident in more than 40. Some relatives of the dead went to the scene off Hong Kong island's southwest coast to toss spirit money in honor of the victims Tuesday, while other people waited at the morgue for tragic news about loved ones.

Police Commissioner Tsang Wai-hung said crew members from both boats were detained on suspicion of endangering passengers by operating the craft unsafely. "We expect further persons to be arrested," he said.

Tsang said police suspect both crews had not "exercised the care required of them by law," but he did not elaborate.

A ferry collided with the Lamma IV, which was taking more than 100 employees of Power Assets Holdings Ltd. and their families to famed Victoria Harbor to watch a fireworks display in celebration of China's National Day and mid-autumn festival.

The government said in a statement that 101 people were sent to hospitals; 66 were discharged, and four had serious injuries or were in critical condition.

The ferry was damaged but completed its journey, and some of its passengers were treated for injuries. Local TV later showed images of the ferry, with its bow chewed up and chunks missing.

Hong Kong and Kowloon (Ferry) Holdings Ltd., the ferry operator, did not return calls seeking comment.

The government said 28 bodies were recovered overnight, and eight more victims were declared dead at hospitals. Two bodies found aboard the vessel Tuesday raised the death toll to 38, according to government statements. At least four of those killed were children.

Salvage crews raised the half-submerged Lamma IV using three crane barges that surrounded it Tuesday.

At the same time, several dozen relatives of victims traveled by boat to take part in a traditional Chinese mourning ritual, praying alongside Taoist priests and tossing spirit money into the wind.

As mourners wept and leaned out their boat's windows, other observers could see rescue workers bring what appeared to be a dead body out of the water and put it on the deck of a fire department rescue boat, where it was covered with a sheet or bag.

Police didn't know the exact number of people aboard the boat at the time of the accident and were interviewing survivors to determine if others were missing.

Survivors told local television stations that the power company boat started sinking rapidly after the 8:23 p.m. collision. One woman said she swallowed a lot of water as she swam back to shore. A man said he had been on board with his children and didn't know where they were. Neither gave their names.

Though there was no immediate word about how the collision occurred on Hong Kong's tightly regulated waterways, it appeared human error was involved. Both vessels should have been illuminated by running lights when they crashed near Lamma island off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong island.

Such large-scale accidents are rare for Hong Kong, a semiautonomous enclave off mainland China that has one of Asia's most advanced infrastructures and economies with first-rate public services. The accident is the deadliest to strike the territory since a 1996 high-rise fire that killed 41, and the deadliest ferry accident since 88 people died during a typhoon in 1971.

Power Assets' director of operations, Yuen Sui-see, said the Lamma IV was carrying 121 passengers and three crew members, well below its capacity of more than 200.

"There was a boat that came in close and crashed," he said. "After the crash, the other boat continued away. It didn't stop."

The ferry involved, the Sea Smooth, has a top speed of almost 45 kph (28 mph) and carries up to 200 passengers. Local news reports said it is operated by the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry company on a regularly scheduled service.

Hong Kong fire services deployed seven boats, including one to support diving operations, and more than 200 rescue personnel, the government said. Four rescue boats and a team of divers also were dispatched from the mainland Chinese province of Guangdong nearby, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Several dozen relatives gathered at Hong Kong's morgue to await information on their loved ones.

A man who gave only his surname, Lee, said he and several relatives had spent the night searching for his 52-year-old sister, who had boarded the boat with three co-workers from the utility company.

"My niece called me last evening and said she believed my sister was on the boat so we should do something right away, we should go find them," he said.

They went from hospital to hospital, to the pier and a nearby yacht club. On Tuesday Lee was at the morgue, which he said would be the best place to get information.

Victor Li, deputy head of the company that owns Power Assets, was reported by Hong Kong media saying the firm would provide emergency payments of 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,793) to the family of each person killed.

Li's father, Li Ka-shing, is Asia's richest man. Power Assets Holdings Ltd., one of several companies in the elder Li's sprawling business empire, owns the Hong Kong Electric Co., one of the city's two electrical utilities.

Li Ka-shing visited a hospital Tuesday and told reporters he felt "very sorry."

"I don't want to say too much. I just know that many people have passed away," he said in comments broadcast on Cable TV Hong Kong.

Social media sites lit up with discussion of the tragedy and condolences for the victims and their families. Cellphone footage of the partly submerged boat was posted to YouTube.

Lamma is the third-biggest island in Hong Kong and near one of the coastal Chinese city's busiest shipping lanes. The island is home to about 6,000 people, including many of the former British colony's expatriate workers.

The tragedy is a test for Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's new Beijing-installed administration. His July inauguration was greeted by protests, and opposition by students and their parents against the proposed teaching of China-influenced patriotic history forced his government to back off the plan last month.

After the collision, Leung rushed to the pier where rescue work was taking place and promised a full investigation.

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Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanma

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