The two teenage boys who drowned at Shek O beach on Monday were not reckless to go swimming because no red warning flags were hoisted at the time - contrary to initial news reports - their parents and school principal said on Wednesday.
“There were no red flags when the students went into the water around 8am, before the lifeguards arrived,” said Cheng Tak-foo, principal of CNEC Lai Wing Sang Secondary school in Chai Wan, which held a memorial for the boys on Wednesday.
“Both sets of parents told me their sons were timid swimmers. They might have thought it would be safe to swim close to the shore, but the powerful waves swept them away,” he said.
This was confirmed on Wednesday by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. “The standard procedure is that lifeguards will assess the [safety] situation when they arrive in the morning. [At Shek O, starting time for lifeguards is 9 am]. They may decide to raise warning flags for reasons such as strong waves or high levels of water pollution,” said a department representative. Red flags are not left flying overnight.
The deceased students – Choy Lai-heng, 15, and Chan Yan-shi, 16 – had spent Sunday night at the beach celebrating the holiday with three other Form Five students.
Around 8.20am on Monday morning, while swimming in a group, Choy and Chan and a third student, Tong Yim-kwan, were pulled away by the waves. Tong was closest to the shore, and she was rescued by a man who was an experienced swimmer.
“There were less than 20 other people at the beach,” said Cheng. “No one was able to swim out so far to rescue the boys. The students called for help, and emergency workers arrived within 15 minutes, but by then the boys were gone.”
Cheng learned of the drownings at noon on Monday, and sent a teacher to Shek O to be with the students. Cheng got to Shek O at 5pm after co-ordinating crisis procedures with school staff.
“The students were stunned and very, very upset,” he said. “They wanted to wait at the beach to hear news about their friends, and wouldn’t leave until the firemen told us that we would have to wait for a long time.”
Recovery teams found Choy’s body at 4pm on Monday, and Chan’s was found around 7.30am on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the school observed a day of memorial. Twenty counsellors and psychologists – from the school’s counselling team, the Education Bureau and a Chai Wan church – were on site to comfort students, who will receive additional counselling in the coming weeks if needed.
The student union took the initiative to organise the day’s memorial activities. Student union organisers handed out black memorial ribbons to students in the morning, and set up a board outside the school where students could write notes expressing their feelings and prayers.
“Most of us heard about what happened via Facebook, and we wanted to try to do something to support each other and support the boys’ families,” said Iris Cheung Chiu-ling, 17, the student union secretary.
Choy was well-known as a musician who played drums in the school orchestra and in a band that he formed with other classmates. He was also a member of the school’s Christian fellowship and environmental protection team. On Thursday, his bandmates will perform a song they wrote in memory of the boys at a lunchtime memorial concert.
Chan was also an enthusiastic, dedicated student who enjoyed studying history and competed in public speaking competitions.
Student union chair Ron Ma Cheuk-long, 17, said, “I know nothing we can say will make much of a difference to their family members, but I hope that when they see all we are doing to celebrate their sons’ lives, they will feel a little bit better.”