Questions on cargo after blasts injure 18

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 September, 2010, 12:00am

An investigation is under way into whether illegal substances were being carried by a mainland cargo vessel that caught fire early yesterday and was rocked by three explosions, injuring 18 men.

The first two blasts hit the Yue Hai 638 in the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter as a fire in a cargo container was being fought, injuring 12 firefighters and six mainland seamen, who leaped into the water to escape.

The third came more than five hours later - 46 minutes after the Fire Services Department announced the fire was out.

Two firefighters remained in serious condition in Queen Mary Hospital last night with burns. Three other firemen were in stable condition in Ruttonjee and Prince of Wales hospitals, while the others injured had been treated and discharged.

More than 140 firemen were fighting the blaze at its height, the department said.

Seven fireboats, 24 fire engines and seven ambulances were sent to the scene after a cargo container caught fire at about 1am.

The first two explosions, at about 1.30am, sent a huge fireball into the sky. They were followed by a third at about 6.45am that spewed debris and smoke.

The department had said just before 6am that the fire was out, although boats were still spraying the 50-metre craft with water to cool it. No one was on board at the time.

The department is helping the Marine Department investigate the cause of the incident with the aid of government chemists, who will board the vessel to collect samples.

An investigation into whether the vessel was carrying illegal or dangerous goods was part of the inquiry, a Marine Department spokesman said.

A Fire Services spokesman denied the seriousness of the incident had been underestimated.

'We don't know what was being carried on board the boat,' he said.

After visiting the two seriously injured firemen at Queen Mary Hospital, Director of Fire Services Gregory Lo Chun-hung said: 'Firefighting is a dangerous task.'

Eight of the 12 injured firemen suffered burns to 2 to 8 per cent of their bodies, mainly on their faces and arms, and the other four suffered minor injuries such as bruises.

The Yue Hai 638 and its six crewmen arrived from Guangzhou on Monday morning and picked up nine containers declared to contain scrap metal and miscellaneous items in Kwai Chung before anchoring in the typhoon shelter.

Shortly before 1am yesterday, fire broke out in one of the containers.

When fireboats arrived, smoke was coming from the container, a fire officer said. Twelve firemen including a senior station officer were helping the crew fight the fire when the first explosion occurred. 'They jumped into the sea to escape,' chief fire officer Lai Man-hin said.

The blaze was upgraded at 1.35am and extra firemen, fire engines and fireboats sent to fight it.

After the first two blasts, no more firemen boarded the craft and fireboats were used to spray water on it.

The Information Services Department said the blaze was under control at 2.18am but its statement was later revised to say the incident had been brought under control at 4.05am.

Lai gave a briefing before the Information Services Department issued another statement saying the blaze had been put out at 5.59am. The third blast occurred at about 6.45am.

The Fire Services Department said it was investigating how the firemen were injured and would learn from the incident.

Yesterday afternoon, smoke was still coming from the vessel, which remained under the watch of fireboats in the typhoon shelter.

Huasheng (Hong Kong) Shipping, the local agent for the vessel, said the boat anchored in the shelter because the No 3 typhoon signal was in force.

A spokesman said it picked up nine containers of scrap metal from overseas bound for the mainland.

A big emergency

At the height of the battle to put out the fire aboard the Yue Hai 638, the number of firefighters used exceeded: 140