A night on Shek O beach to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival ended in tragedy on Monday when two boys – aged 15 and 16 - were swept out to sea and drowned. A 16-year-old girl with them was rescued.
The three had swum into the sea and were overpowered by waves at about 8.20am on Monday, before lifeguards started duty.
The three Chai Wan secondary school pupils were among six youngsters who spent the night on the beach. They began playing on the shore despite red flags warning beach-goers about high waves.
The girl, Tong Yim-kwan, was quickly rescued by people at the beach. But it took eight hours before search and rescue teams - involving more than 60 firemen and marine police, including divers, five boats and a helicopter - retrieved the body of 15-year-old Choi Lai-heng.
Chan Kai-yin, acting assistant divisional officer of the Fire Services Department, said divers carried out 10 operations and after 4pm found the boy's body floating five metres under water near a raft. He was later declared dead.
"The visibility of the water is very low - just two metres. The water current was rapid. The [body was caught in] the current. So the operation was relatively difficult," Chan said.
Search and rescue operations for the second missing boy, Chan Yan-shi, were suspended at 8pm on Monday because on darkness and resumed early this morning. The body of 16-year-old Chan was found 50 metres off Shek O beach at 7:30am on Tuesday.
Alex Kwok Siu-kit, general secretary of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Lifeguards' Union, said the teenagers played overnight and did not sleep, making them physically unfit for swimming.
Cheng Tak-foo, the principal of the teens' school, said the Form Five pupils were good students. "I am very shocked and sad. I have been seeing them grow since they were in Form One," he said.
Kwok urged the Leisure and Cultural Services Department to review beach opening hours, suggesting they should open at 7am or 7.30am instead of 9am, so that lifeguards could be on watch by the time swimmers arrive.
The department sets early opening times at the city's beaches only on the weekends during summer, but it starts at 8am.
"If the opening hours had been extended, those kids could have been rescued in time," Kwok said.
Waves in Shek O beach get higher as winter approaches, rendering the beach unsuitable for amateur swimmers, he added.
Despite the tragedy, several other swimmers braved the waves. At least five more people, one of whom was later sent to hospital, had to be rescued by lifeguards at Shek O on Monday.
A 43-year-old Japanese merchant drowned at the same beach in July, and a 58-year-old British woman almost drowned there last November.
Additional reporting by Ada Lee