An internal probe into the 2012 Lamma Ferry disaster has uncovered "suspected criminality'' and delivered a damning indictment of how one of Hong Kong's biggest and most important government departments is run.
The government minister responsible for a 430-page report into one of the worst maritime disasters in Hong Kong history - which claimed the lives of 39 people - said the investigation reached officials of the "highest rank'' and said it had been turned over to the police for criminal investigation.
Last night relatives of those who died in the tragedy on October 1, 2012, off Lamma Island expressed disappointment at the report, saying it did not find anyone responsible.
The report did, however, identify 17 marine officials up to directorate level guilty of misconduct and mirrors the findings of an earlier commission of inquiry into the tragedy by listing a litany of "systemic problems and deficiencies'' within the Marine Department.
Irene Cheng, whose son Thomas Koo Man-cheung, 24, died in the ferry collision between the Lamma IV and Sea Smooth ferries, said the families were disappointed with the report. "It did not reveal who committed offences and what offences they committed," she said.
The report pinpointed "serious systematic failings" across the department, saying internal communication was weak and records poorly kept.
Announcing its findings last night, Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the full report had been handed to the police for criminal investigation.
The full report would not be released to the public because it could jeopardise the criminal investigation and judicial procedures, Cheung said.
The summary said "suspected criminality" was found in the course of the probe.
Cheung said two of the 13 serving officials were of directorate rank. Seven would face disciplinary proceedings while six would receive warnings.
"Serving officials" also refer to civil servants who are taking leave before retirement - the status of former department chief Francis Liu Hon-por.
Cheung would not say whether Liu was one of the 17, or who the officials were. Of the 17 people, four had retired at the time of the tragedy. One of them was of directorate grade. Cheung conceded that no action could be taken against them.
Of the 55 Marine Department officers who were identified for the investigation, two had died and one was suffering serious illness.
The investigation also criticised the management and work culture within the department and the "highly unsatisfactory'' record keeping.
Internal communication and training for staff were also inadequate, the report said. "This is highly unsatisfactory, rendering it impossible to trace the decisions and deliberations leading to policies and practices, and exemptions and discretions made, of important matters," the report said.
Former civil service minister Joseph Wong Wing-ping last night said: "Just because someone has retired and left the civil service does not mean that the government can do nothing against one, in case of very serious situations."
The families will meet with transport and housing officials on Saturday.
The two vessels' skippers are each charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, while their employers, Hongkong Electric and Hongkong and Kowloon Ferry subsidiary Island Ferry Company, were fined HK$4,500 and HK$5,000 respectively for breaching safety rules.
Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung