HONG KONG (AP) — When two boats filled with people collided on Hong Kong’s busy waterways, the impact knocked a hole in one vessel’s engine room and the water poured in too fast to stop the boat from sinking. Passengers struggled to find life vests and dozens drowned in the turbulent waters.
Rather than rush to help, however, the crew of the other vessel, a ferry, seemed paralyzed, according to witnesses. After pausing briefly near the doomed ship filled with holiday revelers, the ferry continued on to its berth.
Shock over Monday’s crash, which left 38 dead, gave way to outrage Wednesday over what experts concluded was human error. Investigators have not publicly offered a theory of how the collision occurred but have arrested seven crew members, including both captains.
The ferry company denied accusations that the boat left immediately after the crash, but did not say whether its crew did anything to help the other vessel as it rapidly sank.
The captain of the Sea Smooth ferry was in a hospital with rib injuries, said Nelson Ng, general manager of Hong Kong and Kowloon (Ferry) Holdings. He said staff members tried to talk to the captain, but he added, ‘‘We have to wait for the psychologist’s report. ... He doesn’t really want to say anything.’’
When asked whether the captain blames himself for the accident, Ng said, ‘‘He’s emotionally depressed, so I believe he probably does.’’ He did not release the captain’s name.
The collision, Hong Kong’s deadliest maritime accident since 1971, has hit at the heart of the semiautonomous territory’s identity. Fleets of ferry boats form the backbone of the transport network, and much of Hong Kong’s economy relies on its reputation as a well-managed shipping hub.
‘‘We cannot help but be shocked and angry,’’ the English-language South China Morning Post said in an editorial. It said ‘‘pinpointing fault and ensuring that there is no repeat’’ would be a matter of ‘‘safety, reputation and financial well-being.’’
All 38 people killed had been on the Lamma IV, owned by utility company Hong Kong Electric, which was taking about 120 of its workers and their families to watch fireworks in celebration of China’s National Day and mid-autumn festival.
Survivors from both boats said that after the collision knocked people from their seats, there was chaos as people rushed to find life jackets. About 100 people on both vessels, but mostly from the Lamma IV, were taken to hospitals for injuries.
Ng, the ferry company manager, told reporters that two young relatives of his were among the dead. ‘‘Two children have already left us,’’ he said, wiping away tears.
Three days of mourning were to begin across the territory Thursday, with condolence books set up in each of Hong Kong’s 18 districts.
Capt. Tony Yeung Pui-keung, manager of the Maritime Services Training Institute in Hong Kong, said the large number of fatalities was due to Lamma IV’s rapid partial sinking, which occurred in minutes after the engine room was breached and flooded.
‘‘I think it was all of the sudden and I think no (one) can make a response in two minutes,’’ Yeung said. ‘‘So I think it’s difficult. Except for Superman, no people can escape so easily.’’
Ferry passenger Chris Head said he was thrown off his feet on the open upper rear deck. He said the collision felt like ‘‘walking into a lamppost.’’
‘‘Then someone else on the boat pointed out a dark shape moving away from us and said, ‘I think we just hit a boat,'’’ said Head, a teacher who has lived on nearby Lamma island for 18 years.
The other boat was already listing, and aside from two tiny lights it ‘‘just was not lit at all. We couldn’t see anyone on it,’’ Head said. He said he couldn’t be sure that the lights had been off before the crash.
After Head and the other passengers put on their life jackets, he saw that the other boat had started to ‘‘go into a sort of Titanic pose vertically.’’
Head said the ferry itself was listing slightly and taking on water. He said the captain kept the ferry in the area for five to 10 minutes before leaving.
But he added, ‘‘I'm not saying that he was making any effort to rescue. I don’t know about that.’’
Capt. Yeung, who is not involved in the investigation, said standard maritime protocol requires ships to stay with other damaged boats and help if they can, even if only to call for help. He said the Sea Smooth’s captain might not have been aware of this duty or may have panicked, worried about his own passengers.
‘‘I will leave it to the judge to decide whether the captain is guilty or not, but I personally cannot accept (that he left the scene),’’ he said.Continued...