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Outrage over human errors in Hong Kong boat crash

Associated Press
A group of firemen and police officers investigate on a salvaged boat which sank after colliding with a ferry near Lamma Island, off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong Island Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. An official with the ferry company involved in the collision that killed 38 people said Wednesday that the vessel recently passed inspection, but he had no details about how the crash occurred.(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
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HONG KONG (AP) — When two boats filled with people collided on Hong Kong's busy waterways, the impact knocked a hole in one vessel's engine room and the water poured in too fast to stop the boat from sinking. Passengers struggled to find life vests and dozens drowned in the turbulent waters.

Rather than rush to help, however, the crew of the other vessel, a ferry, seemed paralyzed, according to witnesses. After pausing briefly near the doomed ship filled with holiday revelers, the ferry continued on to its berth.

Shock over Monday's crash, which left 38 dead, gave way to outrage Wednesday over what experts concluded was human error. Investigators have not publicly offered a theory of how the collision occurred but have arrested seven crew members, including both captains.

The ferry company denied accusations that the boat left immediately after the crash, but did not say whether its crew did anything to help the other vessel as it rapidly sank.

The captain of the Sea Smooth ferry was in a hospital with rib injuries, said Nelson Ng, general manager of Hong Kong and Kowloon (Ferry) Holdings. He said staff members tried to talk to the captain, but he added, "We have to wait for the psychologist's report. ... He doesn't really want to say anything."

When asked whether the captain blames himself for the accident, Ng said, "He's emotionally depressed, so I believe he probably does." He did not release the captain's name.

The collision, Hong Kong's deadliest maritime accident since 1971, has hit at the heart of the semiautonomous territory's identity. Fleets of ferry boats form the backbone of the transport network, and much of Hong Kong's economy relies on its reputation as a well-managed shipping hub.

"We cannot help but be shocked and angry," the English-language South China Morning Post said in an editorial. It said "pinpointing fault and ensuring that there is no repeat" would be a matter of "safety, reputation and financial well-being."

All 38 people killed had been on the Lamma IV, owned by utility company Hong Kong Electric, which was taking about 120 of its workers and their families to watch fireworks in celebration of China's National Day and mid-autumn festival.

Survivors from both boats said that after the collision knocked people from their seats, there was chaos as people rushed to find life jackets. About 100 people on both vessels, but mostly from the Lamma IV, were taken to hospitals for injuries.

Ng, the ferry company manager, told reporters that two young relatives of his were among the dead. "Two children have already left us," he said, wiping away tears.

Three days of mourning were to begin across the territory Thursday, with condolence books set up in each of Hong Kong's 18 districts.

Capt. Tony Yeung Pui-keung, manager of the Maritime Services Training Institute in Hong Kong, said the large number of fatalities was due to Lamma IV's rapid partial sinking, which occurred in minutes after the engine room was breached and flooded.

"I think it was all of the sudden and I think no (one) can make a response in two minutes," Yeung said. "So I think it's difficult. Except for Superman, no people can escape so easily."

Ferry passenger Chris Head said he was thrown off his feet on the open upper rear deck. He said the collision felt like "walking into a lamppost."

"Then someone else on the boat pointed out a dark shape moving away from us and said, 'I think we just hit a boat,'" said Head, a teacher who has lived on nearby Lamma island for 18 years.

The other boat was already listing, and aside from two tiny lights it "just was not lit at all. We couldn't see anyone on it," Head said. He said he couldn't be sure that the lights had been off before the crash.

After Head and the other passengers put on their life jackets, he saw that the other boat had started to "go into a sort of Titanic pose vertically."

Head said the ferry itself was listing slightly and taking on water. He said the captain kept the ferry in the area for five to 10 minutes before leaving.

But he added, "I'm not saying that he was making any effort to rescue. I don't know about that."

Capt. Yeung, who is not involved in the investigation, said standard maritime protocol requires ships to stay with other damaged boats and help if they can, even if only to call for help. He said the Sea Smooth's captain might not have been aware of this duty or may have panicked, worried about his own passengers.

"I will leave it to the judge to decide whether the captain is guilty or not, but I personally cannot accept (that he left the scene)," he said.

Yeung said it was too early to know what caused the accident but that weather didn't seem to be a factor on the relatively clear and calm night.

He said the lights of the skyline and other ships might have obscured the navigation lights on one or both of the ships that crashed, but that the biggest factors appeared to be "careless mistakes" by both crews.

Three crew members from the Lamma IV and four from the Sea Smooth were arrested; all have been released on bail except the hospitalized Sea Smooth captain.

Police Commissioner Tsang Wai-hung said both crews are suspected of having not "exercised the care required of them by law," but he did not elaborate.

Yeung said he suspects the ferry captain may not have been paying enough attention. "If people run on the same route every day, several times a day, they become overconfident. They become very slack," he said.

At the same time, he said the Lamma IV's captain might have been moving too fast to secure a good position for the fireworks show.

Hong Kong Electric spokeswoman Elaine Wong declined to release any information about the Lamma IV's captain.

A woman who escaped the Lamma IV with her husband and their two children told the South China Morning Post they barely had time to get into life vests before water rushed into the boat.

Renee, whose surname was not given, said her husband, Fong Hang-keung, found an exit and pulled her, their 7-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter out into the sea. The four were rescued in about 10 minutes.

Ng, the ferry official, said the Sea Smooth had no problems when it passed a government-required inspection last month. Echoing promises from the power company Tuesday, he said the ferry company "will absolutely chase the reasons behind the incident."

Ng bristled at the claim, made by the power company that the ferry left the scene immediately.

"I think, at this stage, to say that we left without a backward glance, there is a little problem with that," Ng said. But he added that because he still hadn't spoken with the ferry captain, he did not know exactly how the crew responded.

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Associated Press writer Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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Follow Kelvin Chan on Twitter at twitter.com/chanman

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