Hong Kong Crew May Face Manslaughter Charges
Amid the investigation on one of Hong Kong’s deadliest ferry crashes in decades that resulted in 39 deaths, according to a British maritime expert, the crash was ‘undoubtedly’ caused by human error, from The Wall Street Journal China Real Time Report:
In Thursday testimony, expert witness Capt. Nigel Pryke said his analysis suggested the main fault for the crash lay with the captain of the Sea Smooth, a commuter ferry that was carrying passengers from Hong Kong Island to the dock at Lamma Island, an idyllic bedroom community popular with expatriates located off the coast of Hong Kong.
Maritime rules dictate that when two vessels are about to experience a head-on collision, each are supposed to turn starboard, or right, thus avoiding a crash. While the Lamma IV altered its course 13 degrees starboard, Mr. Pryke noted that the Sea Smooth captain turned 16 degrees to the left-hand port side, instead.
While the Lamma IV could have done more to avoid a collision, including by being more attentive to radar readings, Mr. Pryke—whose analysis relied on radar tracking information and other evidence provided by Hong Kong authorities—said that the fault was mostly the Sea Smooth’s.
“Even at the very last moment she could have very easily avoided contact with a small alteration of course to starboard,” he said. The Sea Smooth, he said, “was primarily responsible for the collision,” and human error was “undoubtedly” responsible for the crash—error perhaps fueled by the fact that the captain had been alone in the wheelhouse.
The head of a commission tasked with investigating Hong Kong’s worst maritime disaster in a generation ruled Friday that a series of public hearings can begin next week, despite objections from the city’s chief prosecutor, who indicated he may bring manslaughter charges against crew members.
Chief prosecutor Kevin Zervos had argued earlier that week that public hearings on the case could generate negative coverage and make it harder for the seven crew—who were arrested soon after the collision and quickly released—to get a fair trial should they be criminally charged. A decision on whether to charge the crew will likely come by January, Mr. Zervos said.
The commission’s chairman rebuffed the prosecutor’s request to delay the public hearings, in part because Mr. Zervos said that the police had nearly finished their investigation into the October collision near Lamma Island, which killed 39 people. And while Mr. Zervos raised fears that misleading or damaging evidence might be aired in the public hearings that wouldn’t be admissible in court, the chairman also dismissed such concerns.
“The commission has no intention of presiding over a free-for-all, in which witnesses are invited to speculate or guess in their testimony,” he wrote in his Friday ruling.
The captain of the Hongkong Electric ferry Lamma IV, Chow Chi-wai, 56, was a reliable witness, Pryke said. Based on his police statement and radar data, Pryke was able to plot a graph showing the route of the two vessels before the collision.
But he did not have an account from the Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry’s Sea Smooth captain Lai Sai-ming.
“I think everybody knows why,” Pryke said, but did not elaborate. The commission was not told on Friday morning why there was no statement from Lai.
But it was understood that only one sailor from Sea Smooth had been willing to give police a statement. Three others, including Lai, refused to co-operate.
Recalling that he had been sitting on the portside of the top deck of the ill-fated Lamma IV, tractor trailer driver Wong Tai-wah testified that he saw the bow of the other ship, the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry’s Sea Smooth, rapidly approaching at an acute angle just before the first of two massive quakes were felt on board.
With a life preserver in one hand and his wife holding the other, Wong helped his wife, who could not swim, go out through a shattered porthole and onto a police launch, after a rescuer chopped through the porthole. Airlifted to Pamela Youde Nethersole Hospital, Wong survived the ordeal but his wife died of her injuries.
Hongkong Electric graduate trainee employee Lin Ka-wang went on the trip. His aunt and uncle were supposed to join him but at the last minute decided not to take Lamma IV to see the fireworks display.
Lin testified he felt the launch rapidly decelerate before he closed his eyes for a few seconds to rest. He then felt a violent tremor and his limbs went numb. Able to see only in black and white in the moments after the crash, he found himself trapped, hearing a girlfriend of a coworker screaming her partner’s name above the din. With the ferry’s stern sinking fast, pitching the vessel into a vertical position and water level within the cabin rapidly rising, he eventually was able to free himself from a “heavy and hard” obstruction before swimming upwards eight rows to the main stairwell. Trapped, Lin and other survivors were extracted only after rescuers were able to shatter some of the cabin’s windows. Two of Lin’s close coworkers were not so lucky.