The scene that greeted rescue crews arriving at the sinking ferry off Lamma Island on Monday night was the stuff of nightmares.
"It was chaos," a senior fire officer said yesterday. "The survivors were aged from young to old and most of them were not wearing lifejackets."
The unstable state of the stricken ferry, poor visibility and obstructions also hampered efforts by divers as they searched under the water, he said.
On land, things were scarcely better for ambulance officers, who were hampered in their efforts to get survivors to hospital by a manpower shortage.
The 24-metre Lamma IV sank vertically to a depth of 15 metres with only its bow above the surface.
Survivors pulled out of the water were put on passing vessels, fireboats and police launches before being taken to five hospitals for treatment.
Fire Services Department divers entered the sunken boat to search for victims.
"In the vessel, visibility was very poor and our divers had to search by hand," the fire officer said. "There was a lot of debris including furniture that caused obstruction. We had to remove it piece by piece before searching each room."
The two-deck sunken vessel was unstable and divers worked in the knowledge that it could sink further. At about 3am a barge was called in to secure the vessel.
The bodies of 26 victims were found on the upper and lower decks of the Lamma IV before the search was completed at noon.
With visibility of about a metre, divers yesterday were continuing their search for missing persons on the seabed.
Chan Shi-ki, chairman of the Fire Services Department Ambulancemen's Union, said there was a shortage of ambulances and officers during the rescue and some ambulances were drafted in from as far away as the New Territories.
"It was very chaotic. Many ambulances had to work cross-district," he said. "But this is very risky. Seriously injured patients might die from loss of blood if ambulances cannot arrive within 12 minutes."
Chan said some ambulances called in from Ma On Shan did not arrive as they were diverted to handle cases in Kowloon.
Because of a manpower shortage, some patients were handled by firemen and St John Ambulance volunteers.
"From an ambulance man's point of view, it is best for patients to be handled by us," Chan said. "If there are enough officers, we do not need help from St John Ambulance."
Officers on the midday shift worked from 11am to 11pm and had no time for dinner, he said.