Harbour pilot criticised for collision that killed eight

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 2003, 12:00am

A harbour pilot who boarded a container ship that crashed into a Hong Kong dredger killing eight seamen in March last year, has been criticised for the accident and is facing suspension of his licence.

According to a 49-page inquiry report, Howard Lau Hon-kwong, who boarded the 13,000-tonne Singapore-registered Kota Hadiah, failed in his duty to ensure the safe passage of the ship when it passed the Hong Kong dredger A.M. Vella west of Ma Wan on March 12 last year.

The report said although Mr Lau was faced with a situation of some urgency and danger when the A.M. Vella was unexpectedly changing course, it was wrong for him to have answered the dredger's call by radio. It said he should have taken emergency avoiding action and concentrated on his ship handling, so that even if a collision could not be prevented, it would have reduced the force of the crash.

The report was prepared by an investigation team chaired by magistrate David Thomas assisted by the Marine Department's principal officer Sin Tak-cheung and the chairman of the Hong Kong Pilots' Association, Pang Kim-wing. The team recommended that the pilotage authority should suspend, but not cancel, Mr Lau's licence.

But it said the cause of the collision was the final course change of the A.M. Vella. The investigation made no decision on any matters of liability.

The accident happened after the Kota Hadiah left Shekou on the mainland for Singapore. It entered Hong Kong waters off Tap Shek Kok, North Lantau, when Mr Lau boarded the vessel.

The Hong Kong-registered A.M. Vella, with 15 crew, had completed dredging mud from Kwai Chung Container Terminal Four and was on its way to a Chek Lap Kok dumping site.

The vessels collided at a black spot for marine traffic. The A.M. Vella sank and six Russians, including the master of the ship, and two Hong Kong crew members died. Four of the bodies were recovered the next day but the other four have not been found.

An inquiry into the accident was held in September after the Pilotage Authority considered a preliminary report from the Marine Department that suggested Mr Lau was guilty of misconduct.

Chung Chui-ning, a marine officer from the department's pilotage unit, said the Pilotage Authority had the power to consider whether to cancel or suspend a pilot's licence.

A department spokeswoman said Marine Director Tsui Shung-yiu was studying the report and a decision on Mr Lau's licence could be made next month.

The Pilots' Association, which employs harbour pilots to guide ocean-going vessels in Hong Kong waters, was unavailable for comment.

A Russian seaman on the dredger who survived the collision told how he spent six hours trapped in the sunken vessel 30 metres under water and was left with just 5cm of air before forcing his way out. Chief engineer Viktor Larin, 51, was one of seven survivors from the dredger.