Hongkong Electric and the sunken vessel it owned breached maritime safety guidelines by failing to keep a passenger list and not ensuring that children were wearing life jackets.
While the breaches may not result in any legal action, it may affect passengers' chances of claiming insurance.
The Marine Department's guidelines, formulated for vessels viewing the fireworks display, required coxswains and owners of all vessels to take four measures before the start of the voyage: inform all people on board of the location of the lifesaving equipment and the proper way to don a life jacket; require all children to wear a life jacket at all times; keep a passenger list containing their names; and adhere to the carrying capacity specified in the operating licence.
"If people had followed the guidelines, [Monday's] incident would not have been that disastrous," marine director Francis Liu Hon-por conceded in a radio programme yesterday.
The collision of a public ferry and a motor launch, which was taking Hongkong Electric staff, family and friends to watch the fireworks on National Day, left 38 dead, including five children.
Many of the children wore no life jackets and, as of yesterday, Hongkong Electric had failed to release a full list of passengers.
Two days after the accident, a Hongkong Electric spokeswoman said the company only had a registration list, not a list of those finally on board. She said yesterday that the company had information on 127 passengers involved in the accident, three more than its first announcement of 124 passengers. But the government figure shows a total of 131 people dead or injured.
Liu said the guidelines had been in place for years and were not legally binding.
Paul Law Siu-hung, the president of the International Professional Insurance Consulting Association, said failing to comply with the guidelines could affect the chances, and the amount, of compensation, that a vessel owner could claim from the insurance firm. "Insurance companies will investigate if the owner and captain have done their best to ensure the safety of passengers and to minimise the possible damage," he said. "They won't compensate for something that could have been under control."
He said the responsibility of compensation would shift to Hongkong Electric if the accident was not insured. "The amount would be astronomical, given the numerous deaths and the long recovery process of survivors, who suffered physically and mentally," Law said.
But Hermine Kay, marketing manager for boat rental company Hong Kong Catamaran Club, said it would be "impossible" for boat companies to obtain a full list of passengers from their customers if it was not required by law, as some people had privacy concerns.
Kay said the company, which rented out two boats for fireworks displays on Monday night, would have informed passengers where the life jackets were stored, but it would have been difficult to force people to wear them.
Li Chi-wai, chairman of the Hong Kong Seamen's Union, said the guidelines would "mean nothing" if there were no consequences.
Liu said the government could consider turning the guidelines into law if the investigation report recommended it.
Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry said it had bought insurance with US$500 million coverage for one incident, more than the stipulated requirement of HK$5 million.
The police said the bodies of the 38 dead at the Kwai Chung Public Mortuary had been identified by their families yesterday, but the force declined to estimate how many were still missing.
Ryan Tsui, whose brother died, said the police refused to give out any information about the deceased, forcing his family to rush to each hospital to confirm the death. His niece, 10, who celebrated her birthday on board, is in critical condition.
LIST OF THE DEAD (PRELIMINARY)
Chan Wing-kei, 56, Hui Ka-wai, 24,
Wong Wai-ngor, 56, Tsui Chi-wai, 42,
Yan Tsz-ki, 8, Cheng Yin-lan, 40, (mother of Yan Tsz-ki), Cheng Sin-kam, 64,
Chan Hau-luen, 55, Nicholas Chi-ho Belshaw, 7,
Wendy Ie Hwie, 44, (mother of Nicholas Belshaw),
Wong Pui-lan, 63, Thomas Koo Man-cheung, 24,
Pieta Leung Ka-kit, 23