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.
"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 yesterday.
"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.
A Leisure and Cultural Services Department spokeswoman said: "As we understand it the two youngsters concerned were swimming before the start of our lifeguard service hours on October 1, and thus no flags were hoisted at the time of the incident."
A red flag was hoisted as soon as lifeguards went on duty at 9am on Monday. Red flags are not left flying overnight.
The students who drowned - Choy Lai-heng, 15, and Chan Yan-shi, 16 - spent Sunday night at the beach celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival holiday with three other Form Five pupils. At about 8.20am on Monday - while swimming in a group - Choy, Chan and a third student, Tong Yim-kwan, were swept away by waves. A man rescued Tong, who was closest to shore.
"No one was able to swim out so far to rescue the boys," said Cheng. "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. Chan's body was found at about 7.30am on Tuesday.
The school observed a day of memorial yesterday, with 20 counsellors and psychologists on hand to comfort pupils.
Student union organisers handed out black memorial ribbons and set up a board outside the school where pupils 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 to 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 he formed with classmates. He was also a member of the school's Christian fellowship and environmental protection team.
Chan was an enthusiastic, dedicated pupil who enjoyed studying history and competed in public-speaking competitions.
Student union chairman Ron Ma Cheuk-long, 17, said: "I know nothing we say will make much of a difference to their family members, but I hope that when they see all that we are doing to celebrate their sons' lives, they will feel a little bit better."