Hong Kong boat collision kills 36 holiday revelers

Associated Press
Officials check on a half submerged boat after it collided Monday night near Lamma Island, off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong Island Tuesday Oct. 2, 2012. 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) — Investigators on Tuesday boarded a half-submerged boat that collided with a ferry a night earlier, killing at least 36 people who had been on their way to a holiday fireworks show. It was Hong Kong's worst accident in well over a decade.

There was no immediate word about how Monday night's collision occurred on the tightly regulated waterways of one of Asia's safest places. The evening was clear and both vessels should have been illuminated by running lights when they crashed near Lamma island off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong island.

The ferry collided with a boat owned by utility company Power Assets Holdings Ltd., which was taking its workers and their families to famed Victoria Harbor to watch a fireworks display in celebration of China's National Day and mid-autumn festival.

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.

The ferry did not sink, and apparently did not stop to help the doomed vessel. Local TV later showed images of the ferry, with its bow chewed up and chunks missing.

People desperate for word of their loved ones went from hospital to hospital, and ultimately to the morgue.

The government said 36 bodies had been recovered as of Tuesday morning, and at least one person appeared to be missing. Details about the victims were not given, though local outlet RTHK reported some of the dead were children.

More than 100 people were rescued and sent to hospitals, and nine had serious or critical injuries, the government's statement said.

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 company's boat 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."

Local news reports said the boat was hit by a ferry operated by the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry company on a regularly scheduled service. RTHK said the ferry captain was afraid to stop in case it sank, too, and returned to port safely.

The ferry involved, the Sea Smooth, has a top speed of almost 45 kph (28 mph) and carries up to 200 passengers.

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.

After daybreak, the power company boat was half submerged with its bow pointing almost straight up. A barge was tied alongside it, apparently to stabilize the sunken boat and keep it from tipping further.

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 to nearby yacht club. On Tuesday he 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.

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 the new administration of Hong Kong's Beijing-installed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying. 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.

"All of Hong Kong's emergency forces are focused here," Leung said. "Wide-ranging rescue work is being carried out on in the sea, land and in the air."

Leung said he didn't know what caused the collision but promised a thorough investigation.

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Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman

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