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2012 Lamma Island Death Reports

Part 3: Police’s meeting with the senior management over working hours. Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry refused to assist in investigation.

Originally published: 08/12/2021 00:03 a.m. Stand News

Stand News obtained the investigative report submitted by the police to the Coroner’s Court in 2015 from the families of the victims of the Lamma disaster, which revealed that the police had recommended to the coroner that a coroner’s inquest be held. The document also shows that the police investigated the the working hours of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry crew and their 24-hour shift system, along with other related matters. Stand News invited three Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry managers to give testimonies, but all refused to meet.

On the day of the collision, the captain and crew were on duty from 7:30 a.m. and had been working for more than 12 hours by the time of the collision. The former chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Labour Unions, Mr. Li Kwok-keung, who had mentioned the crew’s working hours at the independent Commission of Inquiry hearing, criticized the refusal to assist the police investigation as “irresponsible” and questioned that it could be that “(the managers) did not want the public to know about their company’s insider information.” He also believes that the incident reflects that it would be better to hold a coroner’s inquest with subpoena power, lamenting that “families want to know the truth, but why does the government not want to announce so many things?”

Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry is currently operating outlying island routes from Central to Lamma Island and Peng Chau. Stand News has written to Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry to inquire but did not receive a reply before the deadline.

After the Lamma disaster in 2012, the government announced the establishment of an independent Commission of Inquiry chaired by Judge Michael Lun to determine the cause of the accident and prevent similar incidents from happening again. The former chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Labour Unions, Mr. Li Kwok-keung, wrote to the committee to testify as a witness regarding the working hours of the crew of the ferry Sea Smooth. He suggested that the captain or crew of the Sea Smooth was on board full time on the day of the incident, that the working hours were “24 hours back and 24 hours off,” and that he was worried that work fatigue might lead to errors in judgment and violations. Captain Pryke, an expert consultant of the independent Commission of Inquiry, also noted the 24-hour duty system of the Sea Smooth crew and said that “the fatigue of the crew on Oct. 1, 2012, was a problem that should be considered.”

In the investigation report submitted to the Coroner’s Court in 2015, the police mentioned that they had conducted an investigation to understand the crew shift situation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry, to which the Sea Smooth belonged.

In the report, the police said that during the independent Commission of Inquiry’s hearing, they accepted a request from Mr. Fan, the chairman of the “Representative of the Harbour Transportation Worker’s Union”, to testify. According to Fan’s statement, the police quoted him as saying that the seamen employed by the Islands Ferry Company, a ferry company in Hong Kong and Kowloon, worked 24 hours per shift and that some of them complained about insufficient rest and meal breaks. The police said they contacted several union representatives to find out if anyone was available to testify on the issue, but in the end they could not find anyone.

(Getty Images)

Upper management of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry refused to comment.

The report also revealed that the police had invited at least three members of the management of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry to give statements, including Mr. Ng, the executive director of the ferry, Ms. Lam, the operations manager, and Mr. Lam, the chief captain, but all of them refused to meet. Mr. Ng, then-executive director and general manager, had testified before the independent Commission of Inquiry.

In the report, the police explained the reasons for wanting to contact the people concerned, which included the facts that Mr. Ng had proposed at a meeting of the subcommittee of the Local Vessel Advisory Committee in 2014, that the ferry industry had adjusted the shift arrangements for captains and crew members, and that the current 24-hour work and rest shifts were not the right time to discuss adjustments given the shortage of manpower.

The police believe that Ng knew the company’s stance on the 24-hour shift system, and that the system may have caused the Sea Smooth crew to not see the Lamma IV on the night of the accident due to fatigue.

Ms. Lam, the operation manager, is believed to be able to provide information on employment conditions, working hours, scheduled rest periods, training arrangements, and benefits, as she signed the employment contracts with the staff on behalf of the ferry. The police believe that Mr. Lam, the chief captain, can provide insight into the working conditions of a 24-hour shift, the risks, and precautions for each nautical route.

However, the reporter checked the independent Commission of Inquiry’s report and found that only the then-chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Labour Unions, Mr. Li Kwok-keung, gave testimony and mentioned the working hours and shift arrangements of the crew.       

Li Kwok-keung: It would be better to hold a coroner’s inquest with subpoena power

Li Kwok-keung recently accepted an interview from Stand News, stating that the details of the hearing at the time are still fresh in his mind. “(Sea Smooth) Captain Lai left at 7:00 am to Central Pier to get the ferry, starting the journey to Lamma island. The accident occurred at 8:20pm. At the time, he had already been working for over 12 hours, going through multiple journeys from Central to Lamma island. So can the crew still be expected to be at their respective stations? One to be on lookout, one to man the engine room? We think that for such a long shift, it is possible for the crew to be complacent.”

The police had been working on the issue for some time after the hearing and received a call from the Marine Police to inquire about the working hours of the crew. “I am talking to them extensively. The police asked me to tell them if there were any crew members who could give them information. I said, you might as well ask the shipping company to get some information. The police have been asking questions about the crew’s working hours and management, so I spoke to them on the phone for a while, once more.”

The police have been asked to take a statement on the death report, but the staff of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry refused to give a statement to the police. Li Keqiang criticized the staff as irresponsible: “You admit you are in the investigation committee, right? So when the police asked to speak to you, you were not willing to speak? What are you afraid of? … If you want the company’s management to be transparent, you should explain to the police.

The investigation committee has the power to summon witnesses, but it is outside of their jurisdiction to pursue responsibility, and it is not able to follow up on criminal or civil matters. The company was invited to testify during the police investigation, but some people assumed an uncooperative attitude. “Maybe they didn’t want the public to know too much about the company, I think. We Hong Kong citizens are not happy, especially the families and relatives of the 39 that lost their lives. Hearing of their un-cooperation has made us even more discontent, because the police have been unable to investigate the disaster fully.” 

Lee believes that a Coroner’s Court would be a better way to summon witnesses to testify so that the family can learn more about the disaster in court, “but it’s a pity to hear that the Judiciary has decided not to open one, so even this option for the families to hear the truth has been rejected.” He predicts that in the future, the families will only be able to rely on civil claims to obtain more information through the courts, or hope that the police will not give up the investigation. “I hope that the families will one day have a satisfactory answer. I think they (the families) are not trying to find someone to definitively blame. Rather, they just want to know the truth and to find out why the government doesn’t want to disclose so many things.”

Stand News has enquired with the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry Company Limited about the failure of their staff to give statements at the request of the police in 2015 and whether they have contacted the police in this regard since then. Stand News also asked about the current work situation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry crew members but has not received any response.

Next: Part 4

Exposing the Marine Department’s faulty ship inspections.