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Chapter 2.3
Major marine incidents since 1951[3]
Contributor: Lau Chi-pang

Sinking of the ferry Fat Shan (1971)

One of the worst sea disasters in Hong Kong occurred in 1971 when Typhoon Rose swept through the territory with 88 drowned resulting from the foundering of a Macao ferry. The Royal Observatory Hong Kong had hoisted Typhoon Signal No.10 when Rose pounded Hong Kong on 16 August. The Fat Shan was sailing between Macao and Hong Kong when the typhoon hit. Carrying 92 passengers and crew, the vessel was forced by strong winds to anchor off Stonecutters Island. However, the anchor chain broke and the ship was dragged and battered by the wind until it sank off northeast Lantau Island, 120 metres offshore. The Fat Shan collided with several other boats as it was driven towards Lantau. The ship was exposed when the tide eventually receded, and the tragedy was only discovered when a British vessel passed by and found floating bodies. Only four people survived the sinking.[4]

The fire on the floating restaurant Jumbo (1971)[5]

In the afternoon on 30 October 1971, the partially completed large floating restaurant Jumbo , caught fire while berthing in Aberdeen harbour off the north-eastern end of Ap Lei Chau Island. The vessel was owned by a local company and constructed by the Chung Wah Shipbuilding & Engineering Company Limited.

The incident took place only about two weeks before the grand opening of the Jumbo. At that time, workers were hastily finishing the final decorations to meet the deadline. It is estimated that at the time of the fire 234 persons were aboard the Jumbo, dispersed throughout the vessel. There is no evidence that the workers were being co-ordinated or supervised.

The fire broke out at the aquarium, located at the lower deck of the aft of the floating restaurant, due to a deadly combination of factors - the flammable nature of the aquarium’s imitation rocks, and the fact that intensive painting work had been carried out in the aquarium on the day of the incident. The imitation rocks and the wet paint vapours created dangerous conditions that, combined with electric welding that was taking place at the time, almost certainly triggered the fire. At 2:54 p.m., an imitation rock was ignited by sparks from welding. Within seconds a worker attempted to put off the fire with a portable fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, the fire extinguisher was out of order. When the worker returned to the scene with a bucket of water, the fire had already doubled its size and was spreading rapidly, emitting thick black smoke. With only a handful of available fire extinguishers, nobody dared to return to the aquarium to tackle the fire. The fire quickly spread to the upper decks with the aid of the chimney effect created by the vessel’s staircase and escalator complexes. The fire not only engulfed the Jumbo, but spread to a few junks and sampans berthed nearby. The kitchen vessel attached to the Jumbo also ignited.

Through the joint efforts of the two fireboats, the Marine Department launch, the Marine Police launch, and a number of private vessels from the harbour as well as pleasure craft anchored in Sham Wan, the fire was under control within an hour and was completely extinguished by evening.

Nothing was left of the Jumbo, except its steel hull and superstructure. Apart from serious financial losses, the fire claimed the lives of 30 people on board the Jumbo and four children on nearby junks. Most of the victims died in the hot and congested waters surrounding the vessel.

The Fire on the Seawise University (1972)[6]

On 9 January 1972, another serious fire took place on a vessel in Hong Kong– the loss of the Seawise University.

Plate 1: The wreck of Seawise University

Plate 1: The wreck of Seawise University

The Seawise University, formerly the luxurious ocean liner RMS Queen Elizabeth, was purchased by Hong Kong shipping tycoon C. Y. Tung, who brought the ship to Hong Kong to be converted to a floating university.

The conversion was carried out by Island Navigation Corporation Limited at C. Y. Tung’s repair and maintenance yard in Lai Chi Kok.

On the day of the incident, a lunch party was scheduled for official guests who had been invited to visit the ship in the afternoon. The vessel was almost ready for its first sea trial a week later.

By 10 a.m., there were already 500 people on board, including 205 crew and 264 workers employed by sub-contractors. Officers and workers had been busy preparing for the lunch.

The fire broke out at about 10:30 a.m. and was quickly discovered by three cabin boys who noticed smoke and flames coming out from a pile of rubbish while sweeping up rubbish on “M” Deck. Instead of making an effort to put off the fire, they ran for help. The size of the flames instantly doubled as the wind swept in through the usually open shell door. A Fire Officer rushed to the scene and ordered a Deck Cadet to report to the Duty Officer. The Chief Officer sent out an emergency call. Unfortunately, he mistakenly mentioned that fire had broken out on “A” Deck and the public address system went out of order soon after the announcement.

Another Chief Officer received a similar report and realised that it was a serious incident. He ordered that lifeboats be lowered and the emergency hotline be called. The Commodore then received reports of fires on the Sun Deck and the “B” Deck. Owing to the malfunction of the public address system, he was not able to do anything. In his plight, he ordered the mobilisation of a fire-fighting team to tackle the fire on “B” Deck and the withdrawal of persons who were not involved in fire-fighting to other vessels surrounding the liner.

At about 12:10 p.m., the Fire Services Department sent out a “disaster alarm”, calling for all possible help. The Seawise University was surrounded by fireboats, marine launches, police launches, and private launches. A command post was set up on Fireboat Alexander Grantham, in which a small group worked on an operation plan to save the Seawise University. Members of the group included the Director of Fire Services, the Director of Marine, the Commissioner of Police, representatives of the ship owner, and the Commodore.[7]The Chief Officer of Seawise University stayed on board organising fire-fighting actions.

The fireboats directed water at the stricken vessel, concentrating on the upper structure on the port side. At about 12:55 p.m., fire fighters went aboard the Seawise University to extinguish fires and search for survivors. The operation continued until about 7 p.m. Over the next 15 hours, water continued to pour into the vessel through the shell doors on the lower starboard side. On the next day, with her upper decks collapsed and her list increased, the ship rolled over gradually before coming to a rest in the deep waters of Hong Kong. The ship subsequently remained in the harbour for nearly two years before it was sold for scrap.

The fire did not claim any lives and the only serious casualty occurred to a company official who broke his legs and some ribs after falling from the ship into a launch. There was suspicion that the fire was an act of arson because it broke out simultaneously in different sections of the ship. A few months later, a Marine Court was set up to investigate the case. Although the fires were determined to be the work of arsonists and the case was handed over to the Hong Kong Police, nobody was charged with the crime.

The fire on junks in Ap Lei Chau Typhoon Shelter (1986)

On 26 December 1986, a conflagration in Ap Lei Chau Typhoon Shelter destroyed about 150 junks and sampans moored closely together, slightly injuring two people and leaving more than 900 people who lived on the boats homeless. The fire broke out at 4:20 a.m. and burned for about four hours.[8] The Marine Department reacted fast in dealing with the affected working boats, with the Aberdeen Marine Office opening for their registration one hour after the fire was extinguished. A Victims Registration Centre was set up to take immediate follow-up actions.

Various units of the Marine Department helped to deal with the aftermath of the accident. For example, the Pollution Control Unit was given responsibility for establishing the extent of pollution caused by the fire, and the Marine Inspectors were tasked with conducting preliminary surveys of the number of boats in the area that were unaffected by fire. The completed preliminary survey found that 318 families and 1,647 people were affected by the incident, with no deaths or missing people reported. Relief articles were distributed to the affected families, and hot meals were also provided for those in need. Priority for urban rehousing was given to the people made homeless by the fire, who were temporarily staying at the Harbour Mission Church. Most of the eligible people were given public housing in the Lei Tung Estate within just a few months, a testament to the efficiency of the relief programme.

The stranding of the Apollo Jet in the Yaumatei Typhoon Shelter (1989)[9]

At about 5:30 p.m. on 15 December 1989, the Apollo Jet with almost all her crew on board, but having disembarked her passengers, was returning from the China Ferry Terminal to its overnight moorings at Mei Foo Sun Chuen. Whilst proceeding in a northerly direction and at its full speed of about 30 knots, the Master failed to control the vessel's steering and propulsion. As a result, the Apollo Jet turned sharply to starboard at full speed, entering Yaumatei Typhoon Shelter and running down a conveyance sampan and a passenger launch, before mounting the sea wall. Four people were killed and seven were seriously injured. Severe damage was incurred by all three vessels, together with another three close by. After that, the Marine Department has strengthened measures to enhance maritime safety.

The fire aboard New Orient Princess (1993)

A fire occurred on the Panamanian-registered passenger ship New Orient Princess on the evening of 25 August 1993 while she was proceeding to sea from Hong Kong. The ship was beached near Junk Island on the next day, with fire spreading to all decks above water at the time of beaching. The firemen could not board the ship due to the intense heat, and the fire-fighting operation had to be carried out with caution since there was still the threat of capsizing. The fire was finally extinguished on 3 September 1993. Unsurprisingly, the ship was seriously damaged. Two people were slightly injured in the fire.

The fire was reported to have started in the sauna room at B Deck aft of the ship. The sauna space contained five massage rooms, one rest room, one bar, one reception area, one bathroom, and one sauna room. All those rooms were accessible within the sauna space. The sauna room was in the middle of the space, and there was no direct access from outside of the space to the room.

The fire was first noticed at 8:30 p.m. on 25 August, when the Sauna Room Manager noticed smoke emerging from the door. Through the glass panel of the door the manager saw that the wall behind the sauna heater had caught fire. He rushed out and switched off the electricity supply to the heater, and alerted the ship to the fire by asking the receptionist to sound the alarm. Soon the Master organised a fire-fighting team, and passengers were asked to gather at the restaurant on the saloon deck. Although about ten crew members were using fire extinguishers and fire hoses to put out the fire, they were not successful in directing water at the seat of the fire because of the thick smoke and the tortuous passageway leading to the sauna room.

The ship kept sailing until about 9:00 p.m. Seeing that there was a lot of smoke billowing out from the aft of the ship and that the fire was spreading, the Master anchored the ship near Cape Collinson and reported the incident to the Marine Department, which relayed the message to the Marine Police and the Fire Services Department. Upon arrival, the Marine Police ordered the evacuation of the large number of passengers to a safe place before the fire officers would board. Following the evacuation, the firemen boarded the ship and took over the fire-fighting operation.

There was no evidence to suggest that the fire was the result of arson. One of the causes of the fire was poor workmanship on the electric wiring for the sauna heater. Moreover, the absence of sprinklers inside the sauna room where the fire originated, inadequate training for crew members, and the overall failure of the sprinkler system contributed to the scale of the fire. The delayed reporting of the fire to the Marine Department meant a loss of 30 precious minutes in the initial stage of fire-fighting.

Collision between the Yao Hai and the Neftegaz 67 (2008)

On 22 March 2008, the Neftegaz 67, a tug which had departed from Chiwan, Shenzhen, and was heading for an oil field south of Hong Kong, collided with an inbound Chinese-registered bulk carrier Yao Hai east of Brothers Island. The tug, which was flying the Ukrainian flag and carrying 25 crew members (24 Ukrainians and one Chinese), sank rapidly after the collision.

Upon receiving reports of the collision, a Marine Police launch attended the scene. It was joined by rescue teams from the Marine Department, the Fire Services Department and the Government Flying Services. Seven crew members (six Ukrainians and one Chinese) were rescued from the vessel, whilst the remaining 18 Ukrainian crew were missing and later found drowned. Six of the eight containers carried by the tug were also recovered. The bulker Yao Hai, with 25 crew members on board, sustained bow damage but no injuries or missing persons were reported. More than 20 government launches and helicopters were deployed to the scene, including ten police launches, six marine launches, five fire service vessels, and four helicopters from the Government Flying Services.[10]

Collision between the Lamma IV and the Sea Smooth (2012)

On 1 October 2012, two vessels collided off Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island, with 39 fatalities and 101 injuries. The accident involved a Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry-operated passenger ferry, the Sea Smooth, and a Hongkong Electric Company-owned vessel, the Lamma IV. The Sea Smooth was travelling from Central to Yung Shue Wan, while the Lamma IV was travelling from Lamma Island to Central. Passengers on the Lamma IV were on a one-day tour of Lamma Island and were heading for Central for the fireworks display commemorating the National Day.

After the incident, the Commission of Inquiry into the Collision of Vessels near Lamma Island on 1 October 2012 (COI) was appointed by the Chief Executive in Council. The call up of the COI aims to ascertain the causes of the incident and make appropriate findings thereof; to consider and evaluate the general conditions of maritime safety concerning passenger vessels in Hong Kong and the adequacy or otherwise of the present system of control; and to make recommendations on measures, if any, required for the prevention of the recurrence of similar incidents in future.

After having conducted 50 days of substantive hearings between 12 December 2012 and 12 March 2013 and receiving evidence from 113 witnesses, the COI submitted its report to the Chief Executive on 19 April 2013 and the report was uploaded to the Government website. [11]

In addition, after the tragic incident, the Marine Department has enforced various improvement measures to further enhance local passenger-carrying vessels safety in Hong Kong. Information on the work and the reform of the Marine Department is available in the “The Final Report of the Steering Committee on Systemic Reform of the Marine Department” published in April 2016。[12]


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