Six released in HK ferry inquiry


Hong Kong police arrested seven people today after a ferry and a company boat carrying more than 120 staff and family celebrating the mid-autumn festival collided, killing 38 people as one vessel sank.

The sunken boat, belonging to Hong Kong Electric Co, controlled by billionaire Li Ka-shing, was taking passengers to watch fireworks in the city's Victoria Harbour yesterday when the two vessels collided near the picturesque outlying island of Lamma.

Five children were among the dead. More than 100 people were taken to hospital, with nine suffering serious injuries or in critical condition, the government said in a statement.

The seven people arrested were crew members, including the captains of each vessel, the government said in a statement on its website today.

Six have been released on bail and the 54- year-old captain of the commuter ferry will be freed on bail later, it said.

"From the investigation so far, we've come to the suspicion that the crew responsible for manning the two vessels had not exercised the care required of them by law," Tsang Wai-hung, the police commissioner, said at a press conference.

"Our investigation will focus on criminal liability as well as assist the coroner's court if an inquest is held."

Survivors said they had little time to put on life jackets before the ferry flooded, trapping passengers.

"Within 10 minutes, the ship had sunk. We had to wait at least 20 minutes before we were rescued," said one male survivor, wrapped in a blanket on the shore.

Some survivors said people had to break windows to swim to the surface. "We thought we were going to die. Everyone was trapped inside," said another middle-aged woman.

The other vessel, owned by Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry Holdings, made it safely to the pier on Lamma, an island popular with tourists and expatriates. It had a damaged bow and several of its passengers and crew were taken to hospital with injuries.

The tragedy was the worst to hit Hong Kong since 1996 when more than 40 people died in a fire in a commercial building.

Hong Kong is one of the world's busiest shipping channels, although serious marine accidents are rare. It is unclear why the two ferries collided.

"Our ferry left Lamma island at 8.15pm to watch the fireworks display out at sea, but within a few minutes, a tugboat (ferry) smashed into our vessel," said Yuen Sui-see, a director for Hong Kong Electric.

A spokeswoman for Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry said they were assessing what had happened.

"Our captain is not well and we have not been able to talk to him so far," the spokeswoman told local television.

The collision sparked a major rescue operation involving dive teams, helicopters and boats that saw scores of people plucked from the sea.

Television pictures showed the red and blue bow of the Hong Kong Electric Company ferry pointing skywards, surrounded by rescue vessels.

"We will continue our search. We also don't rule out that some may have swam to shore themselves and haven't contacted their families and so may not be accounted for," Ng Kuen-chi, acting deputy director of fire services, told local television.

The search was hampered by the vessel being partly sunken, poor visibility and too much clutter inside the vessel, Ng said.

Teams of men in white coats, green rubber gloves and yellow helmets carried corpses off a police launch in body bags today.