Marine Department chief Francis Liu Hon-por finally bowed and officially apologised yesterday for the Lamma Island ferry disaster, as the Transport and Housing Bureau took control of an inquiry into whether any government officials should be held responsible for the tragedy.
"I'd like to take the opportunity to wholeheartedly tender an apology to the families of those deceased and who were injured, and to the public," Liu said.
His apology comes more than half a year on from the National Day ferry crash that claimed 39 lives. This month, relatives of the crash victims made public a letter to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in which they expressed anger at Liu's refusal to apologise for what they said was his department's negligence.
Liu had earlier expressed remorse for the accident but stopped short of an apology. He said he had to seek legal advice beforehand to avoid "possible problems" that could be raised by offering an official apology.
Lawmakers at a meeting of the Legislative Council's panel on economic development criticised Liu's apology as "coming too late". A motion raised by the Labour Party's Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung expressing their disappointment and regret was passed in Legco. It also called on the government to compensate the victims' families.
An investigation into the tragedy being conducted internally by the Marine Department will now be headed by a permanent secretary from the Transport and Housing Bureau in response to concerns that the inquiry did not have the scope to cover the conduct of top marine officials.
Secretary for Transport and Housing Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said he hoped the new arrangement would ease public concerns.
"I want to stress that the government will seriously and fairly deal with the internal investigation. If anyone was found violating regulations or responsible for mismanagement, despite the rank, [the investigation] will handle it impartially," he said.
Cheung had insisted last week that senior marine officials would not be questioned as part of the previous internal investigation unless new information came to light. Yesterday, he did not answer directly when asked whether the director or deputy director of marine would be questioned under the new investigation.
"There's no rules saying who's included or not included in our investigation, but we'll start from the names and incidents mentioned by the independent commissioner inquiry report," he said after the Legco meeting.
That inquiry report earlier found that "serious systemic failings" in the Marine Department had contributed to the tragedy.
Thirty-nine passengers were killed in the collision between the Lamma IV, which sank, and the Sea Smooth off Lamma Island.