Lamma ferry crash

Seeking answers amid our sorrow over Lamma sea tragedy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2012, 6:01pm

A terrible tragedy has befallen Hong Kong, in the very waters that have made our city so great. Dozens of loved ones, friends and colleagues have been senselessly taken from us in Monday night's collision of two passenger boats off Lamma Island. Three days of official mourning begin tomorrow, but we have been grieving for the victims and their families since hearing of the catastrophe. The grief and loss is shared by us all and our thoughts and sympathies are with those who are suffering.

Accidents happen and sometimes they cannot be helped. There have been accusations, claims and seven arrests, but we do not know for sure who is to blame for the collision in the Lamma Channel between the Hongkong Electric company's boat, filled with families on their way to see the National Day fireworks in Victoria Harbour, and the regular ferry from Central to Yung Shue Wan. It was evening, visibility was poor and the waters were busier than usual. Only when the thorough investigation called for by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has released its findings will we have a proper understanding.

In the meantime, though, we cannot help but be shocked and angry. Disasters on such a scale are what we expect in places less developed than ours - they have worse infrastructure, laxer rules and less enforcement. Yet every now and then, we find matters are not as they should be, as with the Garley Building fire in 1996, when 41 people died, or New Year's Eve 1993, when 20 mostly young people were crushed in a stampede in Lan Kwai Fong. On such occasions, Hong Kong seems to be less advanced than it makes out to be.

The speed with which emergency workers got to the scene on Monday says otherwise, of course. Police, fire and ambulance crews and hospital staff are to be commended for acting so fast to save lives that would otherwise have been lost. Then there are the passengers who helped one another and put the lives of others ahead of their own. Their stories of heroism are to be found elsewhere in this newspaper.

Questions need answers

Inquiries are normal practice after a serious accident at sea and we can be certain that this one will be carried out with care and attention to the facts and details. Those hurt or grieving have questions and they need answers. But pinpointing fault and ensuring that there is no repeat is equally important. It is a matter of safety, reputation and financial well-being.

Our surrounding seas are among the busiest in the world. Container shipping is a major part of the economy, with the port having the third-highest volume internationally. Passenger liners call regularly and their numbers will surely increase after the completion of the cruise terminal at Kai Tak. Seafood is a staple of our diets and the fishing fleet, while substantially smaller than it once was, is still important to many lives. Ferries and pleasure boats flitter in between, an obstacle course to those not of the sea, a navigational challenge for captains and crews.

In keeping with Hong Kong's reputation for having sturdy infrastructure, the Marine Department's vessel traffic system is among the most advanced in the world. It combines radar, automatic tracking information and sensors to create live images. Accidents are small in number compared to the volume of traffic, with the department last year recording 203 collisions and another 49 vessels making contact. Few incidents are serious, though. The collision on Monday was the worst in our waters since 1971, when 88 passengers on a Hong Kong-Macau ferry died during Typhoon Rose.

Collectively mourning

Hong Kong's history is tied to the sea and there is a wealth of experience and understanding of surrounding waters. From accident investigations have come recommendations, rules and standards for navigation and safety. In 1991, an inquiry into a fatal collision of a ferry and pleasure boat in the harbour during the Lunar New Year fireworks display led to greater controls on vessels for such events. But what applies within its confines cannot be expected for shipping channels and outlying island ferry routes beyond.

How two boats collided despite state-of-the-art technology will be an important part of the investigation into Monday's accident. Similarly, there are questions as to how well safety standards were maintained on the vessels. Anecdotal accounts from survivors suggest they may not have been as should be expected. Passengers should know what to do in an emergency, enough safety equipment has to be readily to hand and the crew quick to help. It is all about regulations, training and drills.

We are collectively mourning those who died so needlessly. Our hearts are with those who are grieving and suffering. Accidents are terrible, but they also point to failings and to where we need to improve. Given our love and dependence on the sea, good has to come from this calamity. The investigation has to lead to even higher standards than the present ones.