BEIJING // Seven crew members were arrested yesterday after two vessels collided off Hong Kong, sinking one with the loss of at least 37 lives.
An investigation has been ordered into how a pleasure boat came to collide with a passenger ferry on Monday near the southern Lamma Island, causing the territory's worst maritime accident in decades.
As rescue efforts continued yesterday, officials announced that seven arrests had been made - and police warned that further arrests could follow.
"From the investigation so far, we've come to the suspicion that the crew responsible for manning the two vessels had not exercised the care required of them by law," saud Tsang Wai-hung, the police commissioner.
The collision and subsequent loss of life represents Hong Kong's most deadly maritime accident since 1971, when 88 people died after a ferry travelling between Hong Kong and Macau capsized during a typhoon. Experts said yesterday that the maritime risks could be growing in Hong Kong waters, with reports that the number of ferry movements has increased as more people live on outlying islands, while reclemation of land has shrunk the size of the harbour and forced vessels to operate closer together. In 2010, there were 425,000 vessel trips in Hong Kong.
"People will start querying whether Hong Kong's marine traffic management has kept up to pace," said Albert Lai, founding chairman of think tank The Professional Commons and a civil engineer.
But the Hong Kong chief executive, Leung Chun-Ying, who ordered an investigation into the cause of the collision, insisted that the tragedy was "an isolated incident".
Despite Hong Kong harbour and the surrounding waters being busy, safety standards are high, according to Owen Tang, an instructor at the department of logistics and maritime studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
While he cautioned that the cause of the incident remained unclear, he said the fact it happened outside of regular operations could be key.
"Consider the time of the incident: it was night [and] there were fireworks, so probably this is quite irregularly busy and not representative of the normal situation," he said.
"After the investigation, if we know about the cause then we can make some improvements in the regulations to account for unusual situations, like what happened yesterday."
The Hong Kong Electric company pleasure boat, taking company staff and their families on a trip to see fireworks for China's national day, collided with the ferry at 8.20pm.
It took just a few minutes for the pleasure boat to sink, releasing many of the passengers into the water, with some trapped inside and unable to don life jackets.
All of the 37 people who died were among the 124 passengers aboard the pleasure boat.
"Within 10 minutes, the ship had sunk. We had to wait at least 20 minutes before we were rescued," a male survivor said.
There were reports that some passengers had to smash their way through windows to reach the water's surface.
"We thought we were going to die. Everyone was trapped inside," said a middle-aged woman.
The other vessel, operated by the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry Company, suffered a damaged bow but reached a pier on Lamma Island, despite reportedly taking on water.
None of its estimated 100 passengers suffered more than minor injuries.
Rescue efforts, hampered on Monday by poor visibility and debris within the sunken vessel, continued yesterday.
The authorities said there was a chance there were people still inside the stricken pleasure boat, only the bow of which remained above water last night.
A crane sitting on a barge was attached to the vessel yesterday.
Five hospitals received more than 100 people from the incident, some in a critical condition, after a major rescue operation involving seven rescue boats, helicopters, diving teams and more than 20 ambulances was put into play.
A total of 210 fire and ambulance personnel attended the scene.
* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
& Daniel Bardsley on