After the months-long marine court hearings on the tragic case of ship collision off the Lamma Island, the captains of the two vessels involved were each charged with 39 counts of manslaughter yesterday. The case was adjourned to 9 May at the High Court.
The accident happened at about 8.00 pm on 1 October of last year. The Lamma Ⅳ, which was carrying around 120 staff and families of Hongkong Electric to watch National Day fireworks, collided with the Sea Smooth, a passenger catamaran belonging to Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry, on the sea off Yung Shue Wan (Banyan Tree Bay). The Lamma Ⅳ sank stern first instantly. As a result, 39 passengers were killed and several dozen others injured.
The 39 killed included engineers and senior staffers of Hongkong Electric, young coupled and whole families. They had gone to the sea in high spirits but unexpectedly met a tragic accident and got drowned in the sea. Their unfortunate death must be investigated to ascertain where the responsibility lies. In the marine court hearings in the aftermath of the accident, both captains, Lai Sai-ming of the Sea Smooth and Chow Chi-wai of the Lamma Ⅳ, had admitted that they failed to keep a close watch on radar readings and keep proper lookout, and - upon seeing the danger - acted with confusion and “turned the steering wheel in the wrong direction” to cause the collision.
Therefore, in this case, it has been well in expectation that the two captains would be charged as they were directly responsible persons who steered and controlled the vessels, although they could not possibly had any intention to harm anyone. But as the charge sheets submitted to the court yesterday pointed out, the pair “failed to keep proper lookout” during sailing and take “any effective measures” in avoiding the collision. As such they did not fulfill their due responsibilities and their serious negligence was the major cause for the death of 39 passengers.
The pair has been each charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, or specifically, they were accused of “unlawfully killing people by gross negligence.” Such a charge used to be made in cases of serious traffic accidents such as killing pedestrians by drunk driving or malfunctions. Punishment was from giving fines to imprisonment up to a few years depending on how serious a case was.
A saying has it that “learning from past mistakes to avoid future ones, and curing the sickness to save the patient.” Now the two captains in this case are charged with manslaughter. This is, on the one hand, to ascertain where the responsibility lies and, on the other hand, also to serve as a warning to others so as to prevent similar accidents from happening in future. From this perspective, then, in this fatal maritime accident, besides the “gross negligence” of the two captains, were there other factors and persons that should be held responsible to certain extent for the accident? Including conscience and moral responsibility that may not necessarily legally liable? “Even though you may not directly cause their death, you are indirectly responsible.”Were relevant government departments, operations, laws and regulations completely blameless for this accident?
As a matter of fact, during the months-long marine court hearings, it was revealed that the Lamma Ⅳ had structural problems, such as the lack of a watertight door which otherwise would have kept water from pouring into the cabin. Marine Department officials concerned also admitted that they had discovered the problem during a survey of the ship a year ago, but they still issued the Certificate of Survey after reminding the owner to install the watertight door and. Afterwards, they had never followed up the matter. Shipwreck experts testified on the court that, had the Lamma Ⅳ installed the watertight door, passengers on board would have had five to 10 minutes more to escape. In a moment between life and death, a second or minute makes a great difference. Some of the 39 victims might have had a chance to escape for life with the extra five to 10 minutes. But bureaucratic practice and irresponsible “ship survey procedures”had deprived them of their chances to escape death.
Likewise, after the Lamma Ⅳ sank, rescue personnel found many of the dead or injured wore no life vest. On the Sea Smooth of Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry, many passengers rushed to look for life vests, but either none could be found or those found could not be opened to put on. A ship must be equipped with sufficient life vests to pass the annual survey. How come such things could have ever happened to these two vessels?
Thirty nine people died already. The two captains have been charged with manslaughter. Hongkong Electric and Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry will also face civil lawsuits for huge-sum compensations. But shouldn't the “make-do-and-mend” and “doing-things-carelessly” work style by staff in some government departments also be held accountable, condemned and even held liable?
12 April 2013