When Tai Wai-ha called her friends early last Sunday morning and begged for help, no one took her seriously. They thought it was just another hoax because girls of her age often utter the word 'death' when they are unhappy. But Wai-ha, 15, knew she had only minutes to live and she was desperate to escape the small rented room on Cheung Chau. She and her two best friends, Lee Choi-ling, 13, and Chan Wing-yun, 14, were lying helpless on a bed. They had taken sleeping pills and drunk beer. A pot of charcoal was burning nearby, the heat and carbon monoxide fumes filling the air. Wai-ha tried to get to her feet, but failed, and collapsed unconscious, burning her hand on the charcoal. The suicide pact of the three Form Two students at Maryknoll Secondary School in Ngau Tau Kok last week shocked Hong Kong. It was the latest in a series of apparently senseless youth suicides. But what is most disturbing is that their families and teachers detected no warning signs. The tragic episode started last Saturday night at about 7pm when the three friends caught the ferry to Cheung Chau from Central. On arrival they made their way to the Bella Vista Villas, the resort dubbed the suicide capital of Hong Kong, and paid $220 for a room. Their plan was to find a painless way to die. Closed-circuit television footage from a convenience store timed at 9.46pm shows Wing-yun and Choi-ling searching among the drinks and medicine. They asked for pills to make them drowsy but were refused. It is still unclear how they managed to eventually get sleeping pills, which are only sold with a doctor's prescription. The three returned to their room, where they drank and smoked as they chatted. They then lit a fire to burn the charcoal, swallowed the sleeping pills - and waited. At about 2am on Sunday, Wai-ha sent a short text message, 'Help Me', through her mobile phone to friends. She also called one of them and said: 'Choi-ling wants to die, Wing-yun wants to go with her . . . I want to get out of here.' The call ended suddenly and her friends thought she was joking. No one bothered to call the police. The bodies were found at 2.30pm the next day by the villa manager. The three left notes telling their friends not to grieve and apologised to their parents, but they did not explain why they took their own lives. Last year, there were 984 suicides in Hong Kong, with more than 30 people aged between 10 and 19 killing themselves. What makes families and social workers despair in such cases is that there is often no suggestion of impending tragedy. Making a diagnosis is impossible if there are no symptoms. Wai-ha and her two friends came from good backgrounds. They had caring families, healthy social lives and were doing well at school. Wing-yun was in the school's elite class. All three had registered for a military training camp at Huangpu Military Academy in Guangzhou at the end of the month. 'We cannot bring ourselves to believe Wing-yun would kill himself,' his mother said. 'We can't figure out why this happened.' The boy was arrested with 34 other teenagers on February 27 for allegedly taking part in an unlawful assembly in Ngau Tau Kok Lower Estate. But the school's principal, Martin Lai Wing-chun, said the boy was just an onlooker. He did not think the arrest was linked to the suicide. Mr Lai said none of the three had serious behavioural or learning problems. Choi-ling often did voluntary work for her church while Wai-ha took part in poverty-relief visits to the mainland. Some academics compare suicide to an infectious disease - one that does not discriminate when selecting its victims. It infects not only so-called problem youths from deprived backgrounds but those raised in good homes by caring parents. 'The traditional approach to focus on high-risk groups does not work any more,' said Dr Dennis Wong Sing-wing, assistant professor at the City University's department of social studies. 'In recent years, many young people committing suicide have come from good families and achieved good academic results. 'The problem we are facing is no longer about juvenile delinquency or deviants, but about teenagers' values of life. They simply do not treasure life and do not respect others.' Even things regarded as trivial to adults are enough to push youngsters over the edge - a broken relationship, poor exam results or even a scolding from parents can be an excuse for suicide. 'Young people in Hong Kong are too vulnerable. They do not have the skills to control their emotions, and no ability in problem-solving,' Dr Wong said. He believes there is an urgent need to introduce a course in life skills as part of the school curriculum. He says Hong Kong should learn from the experience of Taiwan, where such courses are introduced in primary school. Students discuss and think over issues including relationships, family, suicide, death and social values. They get the chance to meet poor, elderly and people with disabilities so they learn to value their own lives. Wallace Shiu Ka-chun, a veteran youth social worker, agrees that the old notions of 'high-risk' youths is a thing of the past. 'In this case, we can see no risk factors with the three teenagers - there were no signs to indicate their suicide. We teachers and academics all feel helpless about this situation,' he said. Mr Shiu said he had encountered many youngsters with negative values, and some even think death is romantic. 'Many young people do not love life. They think study is torture, work is hard and simply staying alive is a torture.' Educators admitted they have done little to promote life education. Paul Lee Kit-kong, chairman of the Hong Kong Primary Education Research Association, said: 'Primary schools only have one hour a week for a civil education lesson,' he said. 'There is no more time available to have another curriculum on life education, especially for those in half-day schools.' His immediate solution is for the Education Department to provide more resources and support to schools as part of an effort to make time available for life education classes.