Lamma ferry crash

Lack of information adds to trauma of ferry tragedy

Public still confused about scale of last Monday's crash as officials fail to give full list of victims

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 3:26pm

Hong Kong's deadliest maritime disaster in four decades brought the city to a standstill a week ago.

While most of us were touched by rescuers who did their best to save more than 100 lives, the tragedy exposed the government's failure to disseminate information to the public, leaving many questions unanswered.

It is fair to say that the government reacted quickly to the disaster, in which a public ferry collided with a private motor launch last Monday night. Under Chief Executive Leung Chung-ying, departmental co-ordination was swiftly in place. But measures to provide updates about the victims were grossly inadequate.

Such information is particularly crucial not only to the rescue operation but also the subsequent investigation. This was glaringly obvious when no one, including the police, could get hold of the number of passengers on board the sunken motor launch, Lamma IV.

The lack of timely information forced distraught relatives to rush around hospitals looking for their loved ones.

Hongkong Electric, the owner of the Lamma IV, has been vague about its passenger list. It was not until the third day after the accident that it said it did not have a list of people on board.

On the same day, the government released just 11 names of the 38 who died, accounting for less than a third of the total. This was later increased to 39.

Officials said they could not release names without the victims' families' consent, despite the fact that the privacy law does not cover dead people.

Such a lack of information is unusual, with reporters normally being given the age, sex and names (sometimes not in full) of accident victims.

For tragedies such as the Manila hostage crisis in 2010 and the fire in Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok, last year, the release of information was prompt. In both incidents, a list of people injured and their condition, along with those who died - with full names - were made available the next day.

As of today, the public is still confused about the scale of last Monday's tragedy. While Hongkong Electric revised its first-day figure of 124 passengers to 127, the casualties from various government departments show 131 in total.

Despite the confusion, the government seems to have made premature conclusions about the crash, raising questions as to the truthfulness of the investigations. Officials told the public on Tuesday the vessels were not overloaded. They also said all victims had been accounted for and rescuers had stopped the search.

Journalism academics agreed that more transparency would make investigations easier and fairer.

A full list of the names would allow the public to help identify the missing. Knowing the number of passengers on board will also tell investigators if the vessel was overloaded.

On the downside, the families of those who died could be upset by such aggressive reporting. But there has to be a balance between protecting privacy and the public interest.

Two days after the collision the government assembled rescuers from the disciplined services to share brave tales with the public.

While some officers dismissed the exercise as "propaganda" held at an inappropriate time, the Security Bureau said it was arranged at the media's requests.

It could be argued that the government has selectively released information, or could it be a more worrying sign of sheer incompetence. But the fact remains that an accurate death toll is still unclear today.

It is in the public interest for a thorough probe to be conducted so the government must release as quickly as possible full details of those who have died.