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2012 Lamma Island Death Reports

Part 1: Inconsistent confessions. Ferry’s faults revealed.


1st October, 2012. The evening of the PRC’s 63rd Anniversary. The Lamma IV, a ferry carrying 124 passengers watching the fireworks display at Victoria Harbour, collided with the Sea Smooth, off the shore of Lamma Island. It only took 2 minutes for the Lamma IV to sink straight to the seabed. Many of the 124 passengers were trapped in the sinking vessel. This tragic nautical disaster led to the death of 39 passengers, including 8 children. The HKSAR government ordered 3 days of mourning, flying the red Bauhinia flag at half-mast. 

Independent investigations later revealed that the Lamma IV had a missing watertight door, wrong data on the chance of sinking, loose seats, and even a lack of child lifejackets on board. Many experts have pinpointed these factors, along with the inept inspections by the Marine Department, as the reasons for the disaster.

Not a single person from the Marine Department or the shipping companies has been accused of negligence regarding the inspection of the Lamma IV, even amidst the wave of contempt from the public and the government’s repeated promises to investigate the incident.

Eight years after the incident, the Department of Justice announced that there will be no more convictions and has even refused to release the information relating to the 13 Marine Department members who were investigated. Once promised to be publicly released, the investigative report from the Transport Bureau is still hidden from public view.

The coroner also stated that the 39 victims’ cause of death was clear, even stating that the deceased were not killed, indicating no need for a coroner’s court to be convened.

Relatives of the deceased are feeling helpless at this point, believing that they and their loved ones will never get the justice and truth they deserve.

Stand News obtained 2,200 pages of death reports from 2015, given to them by the families of those affected in the disaster. The investigation has revealed the police’s multifaceted investigations, the Marine Department’s negligence, and many other factors leading to the many fatalities in 2012. The public can finally see the truth behind the fatal disaster in 2012.

The ferry collision off the shores of Lamma Island claimed 39 lives. Nine years later, the actual cause and those who are truly responsible remain unclear, yet the coroner has decided not to open an inquest into the deaths. Stand News has collected over 2,200 pages of investigative reports given to families of the deceased by the police, in order to reveal the truth behind this disaster.

These reports show the Lamma IV’s blueprints and its repair and maintenance schedule. The report even includes the Sea Smooth’s work schedule, showing major faults in the crew’s training. Furthermore, these reports state that the Marine Department often inspects ships without any guidance or ship plans. Cheoy Lee Shipyards was contacted to install watertight doors on the Lamma IV, but no one ever noticed that they were never installed. The police suggested the convening of a coroner’s court due to significant public pressure. However in 2020, the coroner decided not to, citing that the victims were not murdered.

Family members of the deceased believe that these reports show that serious negligence caused the disaster in 2012 and that the government must provide a full account of the incident. The Judiciary has told Stand News that the coroner had already given a reason to not convene the coroner’s court, and the Judiciary will not make a judgement on a single case basis. The Department of Justice also stated that their work will not be revealed to the public. The police have stated that they have already submitted their investigation’s findings and received news that a coroner’s court was not necessary.

After 6 months, Miss Leung finally attained the death report that was given to the coroner’s court by the police.  

Police investigation details: statements from over 90 witnesses

Ms. Leung’s 23-year-old brother was a trainee at HK Electric when he lost his life aboard the Lamma IV. She was surprised to learn in November last year that the coroner had decided not to conduct a coroner’s inquest and thought that her family had run out of options. She applied for the police report in March this year but waited six months to obtain it. Ms. Leung had to make several phone calls to follow up and had to pay a photocopying fee of $4 per page according to the law, totaling approximately $9,000, before she could obtain the 2,200-page report. “I can only say that we were at the end of our wits, and it forced us to take this step, which took six months before we could obtain the report,” she said.

The report consists primarily of police statements taken from more than 90 witnesses. The reports also include insights from expert witnesses and investigative conclusions from police investigators, most of which have redacted names and personal information. The coroner’s court also provided the families with a separate statement taken by the police from a Spanish witness in 2018.

The report shows that the police took statements from more than 30 survivors, witnesses, and rescue workers within two months of the disaster as well as from many involved in the disaster, including individuals from the Marine Department, Cheoy Lee Shipyard and Hong Kong Electric. After the completion of the 2014 independent investigation into the disaster, the police continued to look into the Transport and Housing Bureau’s internal investigation of the Marine Department, revealing further gaps in the initial investigation.

After 6 months, Ms. Leung finally attained the police report from the Judiciary for the coroner’s court investigation.

Experts state that the Lamma IV would not have sunk so quickly with watertight doors

In response to the rapid sinking of Lamma IV after the collision, the police independently commissioned an investigation by a foreign shipbuilding engineer named York. The investigation confirmed that the sinking data submitted by Cheoy Lee Shipyard was based on the ship containing six watertight compartments. However, since there was only an access port between the fuel tank room and the steering gear room rather than a watertight door, there were actually only five watertight compartments on the ship, leading to the rapid sinking.          

The police cited York as saying that if there were a watertight door between the tank room and the wheelhouse, Lamma IV could have stayed afloat for a longer period of time after the collision. Furthermore, if there was no storm involved, it would have remained afloat. York’s conclusion was largely the same as that of the expert commissioned by the independent investigation into the disaster, namely that the “missing watertight door” was the cause of the ship’s rapid sinking.

The Lamma disaster in 2012 killed 39, including eight children under the age of 10. An independent investigation revealed that the Lamma IV, which sank after being struck, had been missing a watertight door, and that a number of Marine Department officials who approved the plans and inspected the ship had made mistakes, failing to detect and correct the problem.

(Photo by Lam Yik Fei / Getty Images)

Police confirmed that the Marine Department’s actions were negligent. Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry administrators refused to help investigate

The independent investigation of the disaster, completed in 2013, revealed that a number of Marine Department officers were negligent in approving plans and inspecting the ship, failing to notice that Lamma IV had omitted the installation of the watertight door and miscalculated the sink data.

According to the statement, the police interviewed 25 former and current Marine Department officers and confirmed that two of them had seen the plans and sinking data calculations submitted by Cheoy Lee Shipyard but did not check them with each other, and that 18 other Marine Department officers had inspected the ship after the construction of Lamma IV and did not find the discrepancy between the plans and sinking data.

The police investigation also revealed that the Marine Department staff used to not bring plans when inspecting ships. Some people said that they only used visual inspection to determine whether there had been changes to the ship’s structure. Many people also confessed that they received no formal training after joining the service.

An expert commissioned by the independent Commission of Inquiry, who was concerned about the 24-hour duty system of the Sea Smooth crew, said that “the fatigue of the crew on October 1st, 2012” was an issue that should be considered. The death investigation report revealed that the police also tried to investigate this issue and invited three of the then-management of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry to take statements to assist in the investigation, but all three refused.

Coroner’s Court proposed for 2015; Police: Significant public interest involved in maritime disaster

After the conclusion of the death investigation report, the police recommended the coroner convene a coroner’s court with the evidence. First of all, the police said that although the court had dealt with the circumstances surrounding the collision during the trial of the two captains, and the independent investigation had looked into the design and construction of Lamma IV, the in-depth investigation into the Marine Department, Cheoy Lee Shipyard, Hong Kong Electric and Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry was only completed after the independent investigation into the maritime disaster.

The police have also specifically mentioned that the Marine Department and the employers of the crew involved have never been summoned to testify at a public hearing, that the circumstances of the deaths of the 39 victims have not been explored, and that the maritime disaster is serious, sensitive and of great public interest. Therefore, the police proposed that a coroner’s court be conducted to determine the actual causes of the deaths.

The magistrate decided not to convene at the end of last year, stating that the cause of death was clear – stating it to be an unlawful killing

However, the coroner’s inquest was not held as recommended by the police. In a written reply to the Legislative Council in November 2020, the Transport and Housing Bureau revealed that the Department of Justice had examined the evidence and decided not to prosecute any person or company, and that the police had informed the Coroner of the findings and the legal opinion of the Department of Justice in mid-October 2020.

The Coroner subsequently wrote to the families that he had decided to rule that the victim had been unlawfully killed and that no coroner’s inquest would be held. He explained that based on the police death investigation report, the independent investigation report, the relevant court ruling, and the autopsy report, the causes of death and circumstances leading to the deaths were considered clear. Therefore, the purpose of the independent investigation and the coroner’s inquest would “overlap” completely.

As for the additional evidence obtained by the police, the magistrate did not find any useful information relating to the cause of death, environmental factors, or death prevention and stated that the additional evidence would not substantially change the case.

Family members: the police clearly demand the need for witnesses to testify publicly, therefore it is difficult to understand the decision not to convene the Coroner’s Court

Ms. Leung, a family member of a victim of the maritime disaster, said it was difficult to understand the decision regarding the Coroner’s Court because the police had clearly pointed out in the report that their in-depth investigation was conducted after the independent investigation by senior judge Michael Lunn. Ms. Leung said, “But all the things revealed are known only to the police, only to the Department of Justice, and only to the Coroner’s Court, so if they are not made public, wouldn’t that be unfair to the 39 families of the deceased? How can they say that the public has received an explanation?”

She has joined the University of Hong Kong’s Free Legal Advice Scheme to seek legal help and still hopes to continue to fight for a Coroner’s Court. She has also applied to the magistrate for a legal opinion from the Department of Justice to hear their opinion on holding a coroner’s court, but the Judiciary has said that legal opinions are not part of the death investigation report and are not required by law to be provided to the families.

Legal experts: officials explain the ruling of the victims being unlawfully killed and state that the review is difficult

Two legal experts familiar with the coroner’s court process said that the family of the deceased can write directly to the coroner for a review or apply to the High Court under the Coroner’s Ordinance to order a coroner’s court, but both channels require new evidence or proof that the coroner has missed evidence in their initial decision.

One of them said that the police had submitted a death investigation report in 2015 and believed that the magistrate had considered the relevant content when making his decision last year, so the report might not constitute new evidence. The other stated that the magistrate had a concrete explanation for judging the disaster as a “unlawful killing,” so it would be difficult to overturn the decision. 

Judiciary: no comment; Department of Justice: no sharing of internal affairs

Stand News asked the Judiciary, the Department of Justice, and the police department about the police’s recommendation to hold a coroner’s inquest. The Judiciary said the magistrate had already explained the reasons for not convening an inquest and would not comment on individual cases; the Department of Justice stated that its internal affairs would not be made public; and the police said they had submitted their findings and received instructions not to hold a coroner’s court.

Next: Part 2

Police investigation of the missing watertight door. The shipyard drawing company’s contradictory statements.