Marine Department officers failed to detect a missing watertight door on the Lamma IV because they were not alert enough and failed to communicate, its lawyer admitted yesterday.
The missing door caused three compartments of the vessel to flood and contributed to the rapid sinking of the Lamma IV, it was heard earlier.
The counsel for the commission claimed the Hongkong Electric vessel should have been rejected by the department in inspections over the past 18 years.
Johnny Mok Shiu-luen SC, counsel for the department, made the admission in his final submissions to the commission of inquiry into the National Day maritime collision off Lamma Island.
It came after repeated questioning from the commission chairman, Mr Justice Michael Lunn, as to why the department's officers had not picked up on the missing door.
"This was, I think, a combination of perhaps inadequate information and the lack of alertness to this particular issue," Mok said. There was also a lack of communication among officers when it came to clarifying conflicting ship plans, he said.
Earlier in the day, counsel for the commission Paul Shieh Wing-tai SC said the department ought to have spotted there was a missing watertight door - a departure from the ship's plans - and rejected the licence.
"[The department] missed a golden opportunity. All these safety considerations have all been missed … Perhaps at great cost," he said.
Shieh also said the crews of both the Lamma IV and Sea Smooth lacked a proper lookout. He suggested there could have been a "reckless gambling" of "who blinked first" - that is, staying in the path of an oncoming ship for too long, to see who will turn away first.
But Clive Grossman SC, for Hongkong Electric, said it was unfair to give the public the impression that the crew of the Lamma IV was as equally in the wrong as the Sea Smooth crew.
He said the Lamma IV crew had acted with commendable bravery after the collision and emphasised that the traumatised survivors found it hard to precisely remember the ordeal.
Grossman also slammed the crew of Sea Smooth for running away from the scene after the collision.
He called it "curious" and "unbelievable" that no crew member of Sea Smooth had seen that the Lamma IV was in trouble.
"If Sea Smooth had done its duty and stopped to help rescue passengers who were in distress ... the overwhelming probability is that the death toll would have been, or should have been, very much less," he said.
Lai Sai-ming, Sea Smooth's coxswain, and three other crew members, said they had nothing to add to the inquiry.
Richard Zimmern, for Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry, operator of the Sea Smooth, rebutted the point made by Grossman, saying there was no evidence that, by leaving the scene, the Sea Smooth had caused any deaths.
He said most of the deaths were caused by drowning or being trapped on the Lamma IV.
Zimmern urged the commission to find that the most likely cause of the crash was the failure of both vessels' lookout.
The hearing into the National Day maritime disaster, which caused 39 deaths, continues today when counsel for Cheoy Lee Shipyards, which built the Lamma IV, will make his final submission.
The commission is expected to finish its report next month.