Coach driver in Hong Kong crash that claimed five lives had been suspended for accident earlier this year
- Fok Chi-sum’s vehicle hit a truck in February, with 15 passengers injured
- He was taken off duty for several weeks to receive training
Hong Kong is facing tough questions about overworked bus drivers again after a coach ferrying workers to the airport ploughed into the back of a stationary taxi on a highway on Friday, leaving five people dead and 32 injured.
Police suspect the 62-year-old driver was exhausted during a long shift, while his employer said he had resumed work following a suspension over another accident he was involved in earlier this year.
It was the city’s second such road accident in 2018, following a bus crash in Tai Po in February that claimed 19 lives. Working hours for franchised bus drivers had to be reviewed after the crash.
The coach with Fok Chi-sum behind the wheel was travelling along the Cheung Tsing Highway in Tsing Yi when it ran into disaster just before 5am. It was carrying 36 employees from five companies providing services at Hong Kong International Airport, including 20 from the Cathay Pacific Group.
Superintendent Michael Yip Siu-ming of the New Territories South traffic police said surveillance camera footage showed the coach slamming into the taxi 40 seconds after the cab broke down, and pulled over to the left side with its hazard lights on.
The coach then hit the barrier on the right side, flinging three passengers – two men and a woman – out of the vehicle, before crashing into the barrier on the left side again and finally coming to a halt. The driver was also thrown out of the coach.
The three passengers were certified dead by paramedics at the scene. They were identified as a Cathay ground crew member, an employee of ground handling service company SATS HK Ltd, and a VIP lounge driver of Worldwide Flight Services.
The 59-year-old taxi driver, who was found unconscious at the wheel, was certified dead at Princess Margaret Hospital, while another Cathay catering subsidiary employee was confirmed dead at Yan Chai Hospital.
The sole passenger in the taxi was discharged after treatment for minor injuries at Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Fok, the coach driver, was in a critical condition at Princess Margaret Hospital, while four other victims were said to be stable. The others were all discharged after treatment.
“The coach was going fast,” one passenger recounted. “It seemed to me the coach did not slow down. I fell onto the floor.”
Another passenger, a driver for Cathay freight and storage service subsidiary HAS, said he was awoken from a nap by a loud bang.
“The bus was still moving and crashing into things when I woke up,” he said. “It was huge chaos in the bus. Some people had fallen on the ground, trapped under the seats. Some were screaming. I was very scared. I saw a woman sitting next to a window, bleeding.”
Police suspected the victims who were tossed out of the coach had not fastened their seat belts.
“The driver’s last rest day was November 27, and since then he has been working from 7pm until 7am,” Superintendent Yip said. “When the accident took place … he had already worked for 10 hours. He could have been overworked or tired … This is one of the directions of our inquiry.”
But Wong Leung-pak, chairman of the Kwoon Chung Bus Group, said Fok had taken a break of more than four hours after finishing one ride at around 8pm the previous night, then taken two more rides, including the last one starting at around 4am. Twelve-hour shifts were the norm for drivers, he noted.
Speaking after visiting the driver at Prince Margaret Hospital at noon on Friday, Wong said this was the most serious accident in Kwoon Chung’s history, but added he did not think Fok had been driving while fatigued.
Wong said: “According to our records, the driver had his last day off on Tuesday, and has had a total of eight days off so far in November.”
“I don’t think he was too tired,” he added, noting Fok had not reported any health issues to the company.
“For drivers who are not operating shuttles, the actual driving time is usually six to seven hours in one shift,” he said, adding that drivers could rest during non-driving hours.
“Non-franchised buses are different. We have to take care of daily commuters and suit their time,” Wong said when asked if 12 hours was too long for one shift.
According to the company’s last available tracking data, the bus had been travelling faster than 70km/h at the time of the crash.
“Our GPS showed that the vehicle stopped at 4.51am,” Wong said.
“The bus will be sent to the vehicle examination centre in Siu Ho Wan. We will have to get the black box and wait for further investigation by police to find out what caused the accident.”
The bus was registered in 2011 and had its last major check in February.
In a statement issued at noon on Friday, the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union condemned Wong for “pushing all the liability to the driver”.
“What happened this morning is not an isolated incident,” the union said. “We have found in previous reports that since 2004, Kwoon Chung has been involved in three deadly road accidents, and all the accidents took place on buses transporting airport staff on overnight shifts.”
The union urged Kwoon Chung’s management to stop passing the buck and to review the issue of drivers working long hours.
“We will ask Cathay’s management to review if Kwoon Chung’s service is sufficiently safe. If it is found below standards, we hope Cathay can review its contract with Kwoon Chung,” the statement said.
Wong said Kwoon Chung operated more than 200 routes around the clock for people working at the airport.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said she was saddened by the incident, and expressed her deepest condolences to the families of the dead.
“I think it is too early to draw a conclusion on this very tragic incident,” she said.
“This is why it is not appropriate for the government to suggest what sort of remedial measures we should take.”
She pledged the government would make improvements and enhance its monitoring work if necessary.
“This is a very, very, sad day,” Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg said.
Cathay Pacific will provide each family of the two employees who died in the accident HK$600,000 as immediate relief, the company’s local staff union said in a statement issued on Friday night.
The airways group said it would also send teams to help the affected families with claiming the bodies and arranging funerals, according to the statement.
Members of the public who have been affected by the accident, or need help should call the Social Welfare Department’s 24-hour hotline, on 2343 2255.
Additional reporting by Clifford Lo