Captain jailed after 39 die in Hong Kong disaster

The Hong Kong Electric boat, half-submerged after accident. Picture: AFP

The Hong Kong Electric boat, half-submerged after accident. Picture: AFP

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A HONG Kong ferry captain has been sentenced to eight years in prison for the deaths of 39 people in a 2012 accident that was the southern Chinese coastal city’s biggest maritime disaster in decades.

A judge handed down the sentence to Lai Sai-ming yesterday after his conviction on charges of manslaughter and endangering the safety of others at sea, according to a Department of Justice spokeswoman.

The captain of the other boat involved in the collision, Chow Chi-wai, was given a nine-month sentence. He was cleared by a jury of manslaughter but convicted of endangering others at sea.

All of those killed and most of the nearly 100 injured were on board Chow’s boat.

The two captains had blamed each other for the October 2012 collision.

The verdicts came down after a 60-day trial and four days of deliberations.

Lai’s commuter ferry was heading from Hong Kong Island to the outlying island of Lamma when the collision occurred. The smaller boat, owned by Hong Kong Electric, was taking employees of the company on a harbour excursion to watch the Chinese National Day fireworks display.

Fleets of ferries form the backbone of the city’s transportation network, running frequently to outlying islands, the Chinese mainland and the gambling enclave of Macao.

In sentencing, judge Brian Keith said that Lai’s actions were not minor errors of judgment or momentary lapses of distraction but “fell way below the standard of professionalism” required in Hong Kong’s busy waters.

Lai failed to keep a proper lookout and take any effective steps to avoid a collision, according to court documents. The judge agreed with the prosecutor’s view that Lai didn’t see the other vessel before the crash.

In mitigation, the judge noted that both captains had suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and were haunted by what happened that night, but said “it cannot be compared to what was suffered by those who lost their families in the tragedy.”

Thirty nine people, including eight children, were killed after the two vessels collided near Lamma Island, on 1 October, 2012.

Survivors described how the collision upended one of the vessels, flinging passengers into the water. Rescuers picked up 123 survivors but at least 92 passengers were injured in the incident.

Passengers on board the ferries said how they had only moments to escape.

The narrow sea lanes leading into Hong Kong’s main deepwater harbour are some of the busiest in Asia, with giant commercial freighters, ocean liners, passenger ferries and private boats of all sizes sharing the water.

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