Police yesterday arrested seven crew members - including the skippers - of the two vessels that collided off Lamma on Monday night, as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying declared three days of mourning and promised a thorough investigation.
From tomorrow Hong Kong's flag will fly at half mast on government buildings in memory of the 38 killed in a disaster that also injured 100 more and left an unknown number still missing by 1am this morning.
Leung made his announcement as an air and sea search for the missing extended off southern Hong Kong Island, after the National Day collision between the Sea Smooth and the Lamma IV, the city's worst maritime disaster since 1971.
Yesterday, President Hu Jintao , Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-President Xi Jinping expressed their condolences and, in an unprecedented move, instructed the Hong Kong government to spare no efforts to rescue the missing and comfort the victims' families.
Leung, who led a minute's silence for the dead at a media briefing, declared that no effort would be spared to find anyone still missing.
"Irrespective of whether it is the biggest sea tragedy in Hong Kong history, there were more than 100 people on the boat and every single life is precious," he said. "The government will use all resources we have to save lives."
Leung also promised that an independent committee would be established to conduct a thorough investigation into the disaster, which occurred when the vessels collided at 8.23pm near the harbour at Yung Shue Wan.
He said the committee would be tasked with making recommendations to prevent similar accidents. Condolence books would be opened at government offices.
Hongkong Electric, which operates the power station on the island, said the Lamma IV was carrying at least 124 people - employees, their families and crew - to view the National Day fireworks off Central.
Seven crew members, aged 50 to 63, from both vessels, were granted bail after their arrest on suspicion of endangering the safety of others at sea - an offence which carries a maximum penalty of four years in jail and a HK$200,000 fine.
The captain of the Lamma IV, a 56-year-old mariner with more than 30 years' experience, was arrested in Queen Mary Hospital, where he was able to give a statement to marine officers despite suffering a broken arm and cracked rib.
Small Craft Workers Union chairman Ching Ngon-lai, who visited the captain in hospital, said he recalled rolling from one end of the boat to the other.
Louis Szeto Ka-sing, an expert in marine and naval architecture at the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers, said both vessels were struck on their left, or port, sides, indicating that the two skippers had not tried to avoid each other until it was too late to avoid a collision, causing the bow of one to strike the stern of the other.
Chan Yuk-wah, head of maritime studies at the Hong Kong Sea School, said that under maritime rules vessels should give way to boats on their right, or starboard, if they were approaching each other at an angle.
A government source said the disaster might have been avoided if the crews of both vessels had paid attention to sea traffic visually and by radar.
Yesterday afternoon four survivors were in a critical or serious condition and 23 were in stable condition in five hospitals.
The 38 who died included five children. Only 16 of the dead have been formally identified. Hongkong Electric, which is owned by billionaire Li Ka-shing, confirmed last night that seven of the dead were its employees.
"Definitely I am upset," Li told reporters after visiting survivors at a hospital. "I left Hong Kong last night but this morning, after knowing about it, I dropped everything and rushed back. There is no need to ask about the feelings. Everyone is saddened."
Nelson Ng Siu-yuen, general manager of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry Holdings, the Sea Smooth's owner, said he had yet to speak to its captain to understand what had happened.
Ng said the Sea Smooth did initially remain at the scene after the collision but he believed its captain had decided to head for the harbour as it was taking on water and had begun to list, with a number of passengers injured.
More than 1,000 rescuers, from the police, fire services and other departments, have been deployed so far in the rescue.