- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 3, 2012

HONG KONG (AP) — When two boats filled with people collided on Hong Kong’s busy waterways, the impact knocked a hole in one vessel’s engine room and the water poured in too fast to stop it from sinking. Passengers struggled to find life vests, and dozens drowned in the turbulent waters.

Rather than rush to help, however, the crew of the other vessel, a ferry, seemed paralyzed, according to witnesses. After pausing briefly near the doomed ship filled with holiday revelers, the ferry continued on to its berth.

Shock over Monday’s crash, which left 38 dead, gave way to outrage Wednesday over what experts concluded was human error. Investigators have not publicly offered a theory of how the collision occurred but have arrested seven crew members, including both captains.

The ferry company denied accusations that the boat left immediately after the crash, but it did not say whether its crew did anything to help the other vessel as it rapidly sank.

The captain of the Sea Smooth ferry was in a hospital with rib injuries Wednesday, said Nelson Ng, general manager of Hong Kong and Kowloon (Ferry) Holdings. He said staff members tried to talk to the captain, but he added, “We have to wait for the psychologist’s report. … He doesn’t really want to say anything.”

When asked whether the captain blames himself for the accident, Mr. Ng said, “He’s emotionally depressed, so I believe he probably does.” He did not release the captain’s name.

The collision, Hong Kong’s deadliest maritime accident since 1971, has hit at the heart of the semiautonomous territory’s identity. Fleets of ferry boats form the backbone of the transport network, and much of Hong Kong’s economy relies on its reputation as a well-managed shipping hub.

“We cannot help but be shocked and angry,” the English-language South China Morning Post said in an editorial Wednesday. It said “pinpointing fault and ensuring that there is no repeat” would be a matter of “safety, reputation and financial well-being.”

All 38 people killed had been on the Lamma IV, a boat owned by utility company Hong Kong Electric, which was taking about 120 of its workers and their families to watch fireworks in celebration of China’s National Day and the midautumn festival.

Survivors from both boats said that after the collision knocked people from their seats, there was chaos as people rushed to find life jackets. About 100 people on both vessels, but mostly from the Lamma IV, were taken to hospitals for injuries.

Mr. Ng, the ferry company manager, told reporters that two young relatives of his were among the dead.

“Two children have already left us,” he said, wiping away tears.

Three days of mourning were to begin across the territory Thursday, with condolence books set up in each of Hong Kong’s 18 districts.

Capt. Tony Yeung Pui-keung, manager of the Maritime Services Training Institute in Hong Kong, said the large number of fatalities was due to Lamma IV’s rapid partial sinking, which occurred in minutes after the engine room was breached and flooded.

“I think it was all of the sudden, and I think no (one) can make a response in two minutes,” Capt. Yeung said. “So I think it’s difficult. Except for Superman, no people can escape so easily.”

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