Life jacket law ignored for 4 years
Ferry operators' objections to providing a life jacket for every adult and some for children led to an amnesty that only ended after 39 people died
The Marine Department never fully enforced a 2008 law increasing the number of life jackets on boats for both adults and children until after 39 people died in the Lamma ferry tragedy, it emerged at the commission of inquiry yesterday.
The law stipulated that there should be one life jacket for every adult on board, and an extra five per cent for children. However, it faced strong opposition from the industry, the inquiry heard, with many small operators claiming they would be driven out of business if they had to buy extra life vests.
Wong Wing-chuen, the department's senior ship inspector, said management had come up with a "short-term measure" - intended to last a year - after holding meetings with operators.
Only newly built vessels were required to comply with the new law, while old vessels were "encouraged" to introduce extra life vests gradually.
That "short-term measure" remained in place for four years.
"I think there was a communication breakdown between the management and front-line staff," he said.
Ships complying with the old rule - that only 40 per cent of adults get life vests - continued to be approved in annual ship surveys and have their licences renewed.
The law was only strictly enforced in mid-October, after the October 1 collision between Hongkong Electric's Lamma IV staff ferry and the Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry's Sea Smooth catamaran.
Eight children were among the passengers and crew on the Lamma IV who died. They had been en route to watch the National Day firework display in the harbour.
The inquiry has heard that the Lamma IV had been carrying enough life jackets for all adult passengers but had none on board for children. However, its certificate of survey claimed children life jackets were on board.
Commission chairman Mr Justice Michael Lunn asked Wong: "The short-term measure did not go so far as to permit a false statement to be made?"
Wong initially refused to comment, but agreed with Lunn when asked a second time.
Last month, the department commissioned Lloyd's Register to conduct annual reviews of its processes after it was found that a series of mistakes were made in approving the designs for Lamma IV.
The inquiry has heard that a missing watertight door in the bulkhead of the Lamma IV led to three compartments flooding after the crash - which meant the boat sank in about two minutes.
Wong said inspectors would not have approved the plans if they had spotted the problem.
The damage stability of Lamma IV - the ability of a ship to keep afloat when damaged - was also incorrectly calculated.
Wong told the inquiry that the department proposed updating staff guidelines and forms to prevent similar mistakes.
He also blamed an increase in the staff workload between 1994 and 1996. Those years saw more than 1,600 new ships - including the Lamma IV - being built at a time when Chek Lap Kok airport was under construction.
The hearing continues on Monday.