Hopes dim for 18 trapped under sea

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 March, 2008, 12:00am

Divers in bid to reach Ukrainian seamen 37 metres down after two vessels collide

Hopes were fading last night for 18 Ukrainians trapped in their vessel 37 metres under the sea for more than 24 hours after two ships collided off Tuen Mun.

Divers were attempting to reach the seamen, who were trapped on the ocean floor in their overturned supply ship following a collision with a bulk carrier.

But Fire Department officials refused to estimate their chances of survival after an overnight rescue operation during which divers had received no response when they knocked on the side of the wrecked vessel early yesterday morning.

The Ukraine-registered supply tugboat Neftegaz-67 was found lying upside down on the seabed near the Brothers Islands, midway between Tuen Mun and the airport.

The 80-metre-long vessel sank rapidly after colliding with an inbound mainland-registered freighter, the Yaohai.

Only seven crew members out of 25 from the sunken vessel were saved.

The survivors were six Ukrainians and one Chinese, aged between 23 and 44. Apart from one Ukrainian, all were admitted to Tuen Mun Hospital and later discharged.

None of the crew members of the 150-metre freighter was injured.

Last night, mainland salvage company the Guangzhou Salvage Bureau, which specialises in recovering wrecked ships, was brought in to attach two cables to the stricken vessel but had not been able to move the ship.

If the 18 are confirmed to have drowned, the collision would be Hong Kong's worst marine disaster in decades.

The Polish-made Neftegaz-67 was detained in Hong Kong in September 2003 because it lacked an efficient escape system, according to the Marine Department.

The vessel also lacked emergency breathing apparatus, and the department found officers were not familiar with the safety system, which had not been regularly tested.

The 80-metre supply ship was built in 1989 for the National Stock Company in Ukraine.

Director of Marine Roger Tupper said yesterday's operation was extremely difficult, with poor visibility and strong underwater currents at the site of the wreck. 'A salvage operator has been contacted to move the wreck to shallow water, such as Yam O [Sunny Bay], where the divers can stay longer in the sea to search for survivors,' he said. Asked how long it would take to move the wreck, he said: 'As long as it takes.'

Last night, the mainland salvage operator had attached two cables to the wreck, but it had not moved it.

'We are working on the assumption that the crew is still alive, and the divers are trying to get inside the boat,' he said.

Divers made nine attempts in the early morning to get into the vessel through a hatch, which opened as the vessel sank.

The supply tug, loaded with drilling equipment, was heading for the South China Sea oilfield from Chi Wan in Shenzhen when the collision happened at 9.13pm on Saturday. The cargo ship was bound for Shekou .

The first marine police launch arrived 21 minutes later and picked up seven crew members from the sunken ship at 9.45pm.

The first diver was in the water by around midnight, but the wreck was only located four hours later as it had drifted 400 metres away from the scene of the collision.

By 6am yesterday, the divers had reached the wreck and knocked on the body of the vessel, but heard no response.

The salvage operator arrived at the scene 16 hours after the accident and began preparations to move the vessel to shallow water. The Marine Department said it would help families of the 18 missing Ukrainians, and the Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko urged Hong Kong to take all measures to rescue the sailors.

Maritime darma

The Neftegaz-67 was found upside down on the seabed off Tuen Mun. The rescued captain said a 1 metre hatch was open as the boat went down. Divers could not get inside because visibility was poor and the current too strong