Death-crash vessel 'altered course'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2002, 12:00am

The captain of a container ship involved in a collision with a dredger off Hong Kong in which eight seamen died told a judicial inquiry into the accident yesterday the two vessels had agreed on how to pass each other just three minutes before they crashed.

Muhammad Sarwar, captain of the Singapore-registered container ship Kota Hadiah, told Eastern Court the dredger A. M. Vella had changed its light signals several times and had altered course after the agreement to pass 'port-to-port' had been made.

The hearing heard the 13,000-tonne Kota Hadiah left from Shekou on the mainland heading for Singapore. On March 12 it entered Hong Kong waters off Tap Shek Kok, North Lantau, when Hong Kong harbour pilot Howard Lau Hon-kwong boarded the vessel.

The Hong Kong-registered A. M. Vella, with 15 crew, had completed dredging mud from Kwai Chung Terminal Four and was taking it to a Chek Lap Kok dumping site, the inquiry heard.

But the two vessels collided west of Ma Wan, which the inquiry was told was an accident black spot for marine traffic. The A. M. Vella sank and six Russian and two Hong Kong crew members died. Four of the bodies were recovered the next day but the other four have not been found.

The Kota Hadiah, which had 23 crew members, was only slightly damaged and none of the crew members were injured.

Testifying yesterday, Captain Sarwar, of the Kota Hadiah, said pilot Lau had called the dredger A. M. Vella via the radio at 9.40pm on March 12 as he saw it approach.

The Pakistani captain, who the inquiry heard had nearly 30 years of sailing experience, said the dredger agreed to pass 'port-to-port'. But afterwards he said he saw the dredger change its light signals a few times and alter course. He said he followed pilot Lau's advice to reduce speed and that his ship, Kota Hadiah, was in the process of stopping.

But three minutes after pilot Lau and the dredger had communicated, the vessels collided, the inquiry heard.

Counsel for the Pilotage Authority Cheung Yiu-leung said the authority had decided to hold the inquiry after considering a preliminary investigatory report written by department officer Captain Li Yiu-kwong that suggested pilot Lau was guilty of misconduct in the discharge of his duty.

The inquiry is being held before a board of investigation co-chaired by Magistrate David Thomas, a principal marine officer at the Marine Department responsible for vessel traffic services, Sin Tak-cheung, and chairman of the Hong Kong Pilots' Association, Captain Pang Kin-wing. It continues today.