Goose-bumps only sign left of ordeal

Naomi Lee

CAPTAIN Chow Man-wai, 34, still had goose-pimples as he helped detectives searching for the hijackers hours after the lives of 130 passengers had rested in his hands.

'There were many times when I thought I was going to die, but with so many passengers on board and their lives in my hands, I just did what the gunmen told me to,' he said in the ferry terminal, where he was debriefing the police.

Captain Chow kept himself calm and stopped the engine when the three hijackers banged on the door of the bridge, after telling all the passengers to keep quiet and remain seated.

The hijackers, who claimed they were armed with bombs, were too impatient to wait until Captain Chow opened and shot the door three times.

'From inside the cockpit I saw the bullets bouncing off the other side of door. Had it not been a double-panelled, I would have been shot through my body,' said Captain Chow.

The hijackers forced their way into the bridge via a side access and pointed their pistols at the captain and two engineers.

After they failed to find what they were after in the bridge, the men ordered the crew down to the lower deck, where they were made to lie down in front of the nervous passengers.

'They ransacked the whole boat, literally everything including cupboards and the refrigerator.

'We laid with our heads down and nobody in the boat dared make a noise,' said Captain Chow.

'After about three minutes they found the money and we were told to get back into the bridge and take the ferry towards Qi'ao island in Zhuhai.

But Captain Chow failed to start the engine of the vessel.

'The men kept urging me to start it. They said: 'If you don't co-operate, you will be the first to die. If we can't make it, you won't make it either'.

'The men became panicky and pushed me hard with the gun.

'They shouted and accused me of playing games with them and threatened to pull the trigger.

'I don't understand why I could not punch the right gear at that moment. I asked my chief engineer to start it, and it worked.' The jetfoil went at full speed towards Qi'ao island and Captain Chow warned the passengers to fasten their seatbelts and keep calm.

'Everyone's life was at stake with the boat going so fast.

'I kept telling the men that it was very dangerous and the boat might be grounded in shallow water but they told me to shut up or get killed,' he said.

'They were busy talking on their walkie-talkies in a dialect that I could not understand. When they talked in Cantonese, it was with a heavy mainland accent.' Captain Chow described the hijackers as three rough men aged between 19 and 30. He could only vaguely remember the faces of the hijackers and the two men who fetched them on Qi'ao island.

Captain Chow, who joined the company 41/2 years ago, had recently been promoted to captain.

Executive manager of Macau maritime terminal, Captain Augusto Lizardo, praised him for his boldness and joked that he would consider making him an admiral. 'He did very well under the circumstances. I'm very happy with him. He saved the boat and the life of the passengers. The value of the boat is much higher than the amount of cash the robbers got,' he said.