Hero's instincts took over as world turned upside down
After Lee Ming-sun got his children to a life raft in the Lamma ferry disaster, he returned for his wife … then he heard a stranger's calls for help
It was National Day last year. And what was supposed to be a family outing with friends to see the fireworks display in Victoria Harbour became a nightmare for Lee Ming-sun as he tried to keep his family alive in one of Hong Kong's worst maritime disasters.
But it was also a night that saw Lee display tremendous heroism when he gave up his search for his wife in order to help a drowning man.
In the end, he, his wife and two children were all reunited following the tragedy that claimed 39 lives, including eight children.
Lee, 48, and his family had been invited by a friend to join a boat party organised by Hongkong Electric to watch the fireworks on Victoria Harbour on October 1.
But after setting off from Lamma Island, their boat, the Lamma IV, collided with a Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry's Sea Smooth off Yung Shue Wan. The Hongkong Electric boat sank within minutes.
Lee, who manages an engineering business, grew up in Big Wave Bay, where he still lives, and is not only a skilled swimmer but trained in life-saving. He has been married for 13 years and has a daughter, 10, and two-year-old son.
"The crash happened so suddenly," Lee said. "Before a minute had gone by, the boat was swiftly sinking; and before we knew it, all 100 of us had tumbled several metres down to the stern."
Lee was sitting with his son in the bow when the two boats crashed into each other. He heard a loud crash and called out to his family to run towards him. They were reunited for a moment only. The boat then tilted at a 90-degree angle, causing passengers and loose seats and fittings to fall to the stern. In the inquiry held into the disaster, one naval architect said the Lamma IV sank in the same way as the Titanic.
"Where we sat basically determined which one of us survived," he said.
Lee managed to find his children again in the chaos.
As water poured into the boat, Lee shoved his daughter through an open window before clambering out into the open sea with his son. He managed to get his children onto a life raft, then took their life jackets and began to swim back towards the sinking vessel to find his wife. That was when he heard a man crying for help.
"I felt really conflicted," Lee said. "Each second meant life or death. Do I save a stranger, who would definitely drown without my help, or find the person I love most?"
He decided to save the drowning man. At first, Lee thought he could just give the man a life jacket and leave, but the man was in a panic, and would not listen to his instructions or stop flapping his arms about. So Lee gave him both life jackets, and hugged him from the back to calm him down.
As he held him, two bodies drifted towards them. With one hand, he grabbed on to them to keep them from floating away because he knew their families would want to have the bodies.
"That was when I knew I had to stay where I was," he said. "Though I wanted so badly to find my wife and bring her to safety, I could only trust that she was alive." Finally, after 20 agonising minutes, rescue boats arrived and Lee helped haul the man and the two bodies onboard.
It was not until they reached hospital that Lee found that his wife was among the survivors.
She has never blamed him for not coming to her aid but has instead praised him for his courage, saying that the children were their top priority.
To this day, Lee still does not know who was the man he saved.
"No one should expect any reward when they choose to act on something," he said. "I do still wish I could meet him and have a chat over drinks, but it's not a necessity."
Though the family was lucky to survive, Lee said they were still traumatised by the disaster. His wife regularly sees a psychologist, and his children now fear going on boats or swimming.
But the experience has taught Lee to treasure his family and friends even more.
"Life is so transient," he said. "Before, I would work even on holidays but these days, I try to spend more time with my family. Even just sitting down and watching TV with them, seeing their faces, laughing with them, these are such gifts in themselves."