Hong Kong airport bridge collision: Tug captain 'may have ignored height limit'

Source close to investigation says height of crane and high tide may have contributed to collision, which closed access to the airport

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2015, 2:27am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2015, 5:48pm

The captain of a tugboat involved in last Friday's incident on the Kap Shui Mun Bridge - which blocked access to the airport - may have ignored the structure's height limit even though he allegedly knew the broken-down crane on board could not be lowered due to a mechanical problem, the Post has learned.

Initial investigations showed the crane and the barge it was on was about three metres higher than the height restriction of 41 metres for vessels passing under the bridge, according to one source with knowledge of the investigation.

He said the crane, which has a maximum height of 43 metres, was tilted slightly to 41 metres, and the barge's hull rose about three metres above sea level.

But he said the barge would not have hit the bridge because its actual clearance was 47 metres. "Unluckily, they might not have taken into account the high tide that caused the water level to rise nearly two metres," the source said.

"In addition, waves also prompted the barge to go up and down about one metre," he said.

Due to the mechanical fault, the crane could not be lowered further as it was being towed by a tugboat from the Lantau construction site of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge to Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter at the time the incident happened at about 7.30pm on Friday.

Another source close to the investigation said the captain of the tugboat was apparently taking a detour to manoeuvre under the Kap Shui Mun Bridge instead of the Tsing Ma Bridge, which has a higher height restriction of 53 metres. "As the tugboat was moving at about five nautical miles an hour, we believe the detour could save 30 minutes to one hour," the source said.

BACKGROUND: Barge that struck and sparked traffic chaos on key bridge linking to Hong Kong airport 'breached height limits'

After Kap Shui Mun Bridge was struck last Friday, the tugboat left the scene. The incident led to the closure of the link for about 90 minutes, causing traffic chaos to and from Hong Kong International Airport.

On the following day, police found the tugboat and barge at Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter. The captain of the tugboat and the two crew of the barge were arrested for criminal damage, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.

According to the Merchant Shipping (Local Vessels) Ordinance, it is an offence for a vessel with a height exceeding 41 metres above sea level to enter the Kap Shui Mun Bridge area. A local vessel with a height exceeding 53 metres is barred from the Tsing Ma Bridge area.

If the vessel involved is being towed when entering these areas, the coxswains of both vessels would commit an offence. The maximum penalty for each person is HK$10,000 and six months' imprisonment.

Yesterday, transport minister Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the government would review emergency plans in place since the airport was opened in 1998. The plan involved arranging for ferries to carry commuters from Tsuen Wan West to Tung Chung in case the link to Lantau was shut down, Cheung said.

He said the government's review would look at possible inadequacies in the implementation of the existing plan. "This includes the process of activating sea transport and information dissemination," he said.

Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, chairman of the Legislative Council's transport panel, said the Marine Department was to blame for Friday's incident. He said the department had been lax in its patrols.

Additional reporting by Christy Leung