Lamma ferry tragedy: So much for justice and equality before the law when government officials are not held to account over deaths
Philip Bowring says the decision not to hold Marine Department officials responsible for the regulatory lapses that contributed to the Lamma ferry tragedy is unconscionable
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is not above the law, we are assured. But one serious issue which suggests there is sometimes one law for government officials and corporations, and one for the general public is the case of the Lamma ferry sinking. This was Hong Kong's worst maritime disaster in modern times, with 39 deaths and 92 injuries.
The Lamma IV ferry, a company-owned boat, was carrying HK Electric employees and their families to see the National Day fireworks in 2012. The sea was calm, visibility was good, and the collision was not at high speed. Yet the Lamma IV sank, stern first, within two minutes of the collision with a public ferry, the Sea Smooth, operated by Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry Limited.
Now we are told that no one in the Marine Department can be prosecuted, allegedly for a lack of evidence. What nonsense. Are we to assume that the department's records are so badly kept and that buck-passing is so widespread that no one is responsible for anything?
Boats, like cars, are supposedly designed to minimise risks to passengers in the event of collisions, whether caused by human error or other factors such as, in the case of boats, hitting semi-submerged containers that have fallen off ships. Boats are, additionally, supposed to have an adequate supply of accessible life jackets in view of the danger of sinking.
READ MORE: Families of Lamma ferry victims recruit senior counsel for possible private lawsuit against 17 Marine Department officials
In the Lamma IV case, the high death toll was directly attributed to inadequacies in the vessel and its safety features, which were, according to the report of the inquiry into the tragedy, the direct result of failures by people in the Marine Department, the company and elsewhere to follow and implement safety standards.
However, the only people charged were crew of the vessels, with the coxswains of both boats being found guilty. How convenient to place all the blame on the (poorly paid) skippers of the vessels rather than on officials and others sitting comfortably in their offices presiding over a failure to implement safety regulations and making design changes, which proved fatal.
This official attempt to place all blame on those responsible for the collision rather than those responsible for the Lamma IV's quick sinking has long been suspected, as I wrote in this column in May 2013. The report's references to the coxswains were redacted, as the individuals had been charged. But the damning references to others were left in, which suggested that there was never an intention to charge others, otherwise those passages might have been regarded as prejudicial. Now, after almost 30 months of supposed further investigation, that suspicion is now confirmed.
READ MORE: Three years after the Lamma ferry tragedy, we're none the wiser about who should be held responsible
It is worth remembering just how thorough was the official inquiry, which heard 113 witnesses, including several experts, and whose report ran to 186 pages. Factors other than navigation responsible for the death toll included: lack of a bulkhead door specified in the original design; this lack, together with the placing of 8.25 tonnes of additional ballast, caused the vessel to sink at a steep angle, making escape very difficult. Other factors included below-design-thickness hull plating, lack of adequate children's life jackets, inaccessibility of other life jackets, and upper-deck seats which became detached from the deck, catapulting passengers towards the rapidly sinking stern. The Lamma IV also had fewer crew than its licence required.
This was quite a list of culpability involving the department, the company and others involved in the modification of the Lamma IV's original design and subsequent operation, all factors which made it so vulnerable to sinking quickly and at a steep angle.
The families of the many victims are rightly furious at this whitewash, which must ultimately be the responsibility of the Department of Justice. It is scant consolation that they can take civil action, with its huge costs and given the almost limitless resources of the government and corporate entities they would be up against.
Indeed, the difficulty and cost of civil remedies was illustrated by the loss by a Discovery Bay flat owner of her case against the developer for loss of view. The judge had the arrogance to say that a reasonable reader should have known that the words "all information and photos are for reference only" meant that the sales brochure was not to be taken at face value and was not a definitive statement, So, deliberate lying by developers is so much the norm that it should be ignored, suggested Deputy Judge Kent Yee Kai-siu.
Then there is the failure to take action against police officers who have been shown on camera beating up, for no apparent reason, Occupy protesters. The slightest physical contact can be regarded as an assault on an officer while actual and deliberate assault by officers has been disregarded.
For sure, some Occupy prosecutions were justified. But the sheer lack of balance in the Occupy cases ensures further distrust in the police force.
Nor does it help the cause of justice and equality when police routinely fail to enforce parking and traffic rules when these are inconvenient to influential people. The rule of law starts with equality before it.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator