HONG KONG // Authorities have boarded a half-submerged boat that collided with a ferry last night, killing at least 36 people who had been on their way to a holiday fireworks display in Hong Kong's worst accident in well over a decade.
There was no immediate announcement of how the collision occurred on the tightly regulated waterways. The evening was clear and both vessels should have been illuminated by running lights when they crashed near Lamma island off the south-western coast of Hong Kong island.
The ferry collided with a boat owned by utility company Power Assets Holdings Ltd, which was taking its workers and their families to famed Victoria Harbour to watch a fireworks display in celebration of China's National Day and mid-autumn festival.
Survivors told local television stations that the power company boat started sinking rapidly after the 8.23pm (4.23pm UAE) collision. One woman said she swallowed a lot of water as she swam back to shore. A man said he had been on board with his children and did not know where they were. Neither gave their names.
The ferry did not sink, and apparently did not stop to help the doomed vessel. Local TV later showed images of the ferry, with its bow chewed up and chunks missing.
People desperate for word of their loved ones went from hospital to hospital, and ultimately to the morgue.
A man who gave only his surname, Lee, said he and several relatives had spent the night searching for his 52-year-old sister, who had boarded the boat with three co-workers from the utility company.
"My niece called me last evening and said she believed my sister was on the boat so we should do something right away, we should go find them," he said.
They went from hospital to hospital, to the pier and to nearby yacht club. Today he was at the morgue, which he said would be the best place to get information.
The government said 36 bodies had been recovered by this morning, and at least one person appeared to be missing. Details about the victims were not given, though local outlet RTHK reported some of the dead were children.
More than 100 people were rescued and sent to hospitals, and nine had serious or critical injuries, the government's statement said.
Such large-scale accidents are rare for Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous enclave off mainland China that has one of Asia's most advanced infrastructures and economies with first-rate public services. The accident is the deadliest to strike the territory since a 1996 high rise fire that killed 41, and the worst ferry accident since 88 people died during a typhoon in 1971.
Power Assets' director of operations, Yuen Sui-see, said the company's boat was carrying 121 passengers and three crew members, well below its capacity of more than 200.
"There was a boat that came in close and crashed," he said. "After the crash, the other boat continued away. It didn't stop."
Local news reports said the boat was hit by a ferry operated by the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry company on a regularly scheduled service. RTHK said the ferry captain was afraid to stop in case it sank, too, and returned to port safely.
The ferry involved, the Sea Smooth, has a top speed of 24 knots and carries up to 200 passengers.
Hong Kong fire services deployed seven boats, including one to support diving operations, and more than 200 rescue personnel, the government said. Four rescue boats and a team of divers also were dispatched from the mainland Chinese province of Guangdong nearby, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.
After daybreak, the power company boat was half submerged with its bow pointing almost straight up. A barge was tied alongside it, apparently to stabilise the sunken boat and keep it from tipping further.
Victor Li, deputy head of the company that owns Power Assets, was reported by Hong Kong media saying the firm would provide emergency payments of HK$200,000 (Dh94,737) to the family of each person killed.
Lamma is the third-biggest island in Hong Kong and near one of the coastal Chinese city's busiest shipping lanes. The island is home to about 6,000 people, including many of the former British colony's expatriate workers.