This is no time to rush to judgment

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 2:12am

The ferry tragedy on Monday night has shocked Hong Kong. In this time of grief, it's natural for people to demand answers and punish those responsible. But, given there are so many unknown factors about what caused the disaster, it may be wiser not to jump to conclusions and start the blame game.

Seven crew members from both vessels have been arrested, including the two skippers. The public has started labelling the crew of the Sea Smooth - the vessel owned by Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry Holdings - as guilty of a "hit and run" for their alleged failure to stop and help rescue passengers from the sunken boat, the Lamma IV.

Accordingly, the Sea Smooth's skipper has taken most of the blame. Like the other arrested seamen, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Under our legal system, it's called innocent until proven guilty. A criminal investigation is under way. Another official inquiry has been commissioned. Responsibility for the accident should ultimately be determined by investigators and the courts.

After the Sea Smooth collided with Lamma IV, its crew had little idea how extensively their vessel was damaged. It is not like the hi-tech Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, where the captain can telecommunicate with his chief engineer whose computer will give him an immediate damage assessment after an incident. The law of the sea says you must lend assistance to maritime victims in your vicinity, but it's also a skipper's responsibility to ensure the safety of his own passengers. The Sea Smooth had dozens of passengers aboard.

If there is a breach in his vessel, it could sink or lose power. The ferry was already close to a pier and other boats were on hand to lend assistance, so the skipper might have decided it was better to play safe and reach the shore first. This is not to defend the crew members, only to point out that there are enough crucial questions that must be authoritatively answered before a fair judgment can be rendered.

Those arrested, including the Sea Smooth crew, may ultimately be found guilty of causing the city's worst maritime disaster in decades. But justice and fairness demand we should at least wait for the outcome of an authoritative investigation.