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Though there was no immediate word about how the collision occurred on Hong Kong’s tightly regulated waterways, it appeared human error was involved. Both vessels should have been illuminated by running lights when they crashed near Lamma Island off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong Island.

Such large-scale accidents are rare for Hong Kong, a semiautonomous enclave 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 deadliest ferry accident since 88 people died during a typhoon in 1971.

Power Assets‘ director of operations, Yuen Sui-see, said the Lamma IV 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.”

The ferry involved, the Sea Smooth, has a top speed of almost 45 kph and carries up to 200 passengers. Local news reports said it is operated by the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry company on a regularly scheduled service.

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.

Several dozen relatives gathered at Hong Kong’s morgue to await information on their loved ones.

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 a nearby yacht club. On Tuesday, Mr. Lee was at the morgue, which he said would be the best place to get information.

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 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,793) to the family of each person killed.

Mr. Li’s father, Li Ka-shing, is Asia’s richest man. Power Assets Holdings Ltd., one of several companies in the elder Mr. Li’s sprawling business empire, owns the Hong Kong Electric Co., one of the city’s two electrical utilities.

Li Ka-shing visited a hospital Tuesday and told reporters he felt “very sorry.”

“I don’t want to say too much. I just know that many people have passed away,” he said in comments broadcast on Cable TV Hong Kong.

Social media sites lit up with discussion of the accidnet and condolences for the victims and their families. Cellphone footage of the partly submerged boat was posted to YouTube.

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