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2012 Lamma Island Death Reports

Part 5: The last 118 seconds of the Lamma IV: Loss and goodbyes.

Originally published: 08/12/2021 8:41 p.m. Stand News

That night, the seas were calm.

The opportunity to visit the power plant and watch the fireworks on the 11th National Day was not a common occurrence for those on board, as they were selected in an employee lottery. Selected employees could only bring three friends or relatives, each at a cost of $100.

In the survivors’ statements, no one remembered where in the power plant they visited, anything about the windmills on Lamma Island, or what they ate at the buffet dinner in the staff restaurant. What they did remember was that at 7:45 p.m., after dinner, everyone boarded the ship ready to sail to the Victoria Harbour to watch the National Day fireworks, and they had a choice of which ship to board.

The crew reminded them that there were two boats, Lamma II and Lamma IV. After watching the fireworks, Lamma II would sail to Ap Lei Chau, and Lamma IV would dock at Central Pier. The crew said to them at the pier, “After watching the fireworks, if you want to go to Central to get on the front boat. to get on the boat at Ap Lei Chau, please go to the back boat…”

124 people chose Lamma IV.

5 minutes after departure.

The trip was going smoothly, and after everyone boarded the ship, HEC’s event organizer even said to the captain, “We have plenty of time. The National Day fireworks in Victoria Harbour started at 9 o’clock.”

Lamma IV did not immediately set sail, the crew said, because there were elderly people with children. As it was still early and there were many ships in Victoria Harbour, along with the wind and waves being very rough, the staff chose to set sail a little later due to concerns that the passengers would get seasick.  Lamma IV usually carries Hong Kong Electric staff to and from work, taking the same old route to and from Lamma Island. The captain and two of the crew members were veterans of HEC, having served the company for exactly 30 years.

After waiting for about ten minutes, Lamma IV set sail at about 8:15 p.m. Before setting sail, the captain sounded the horn.

On the eve of the National Day in 2012, it was the Mid-Autumn Festival. The full moon shone down on the full ferry.

Some people performed magic tricks, others arranged their cameras to take pictures of the fireworks, some listened to MP3s or replied to phone messages, and some closed their eyes to relax.

Lamma IV had two decks, and the upper deck was 70% to 80% full. Many people walked around the cabin after the boat set sail, chatting with friends and relatives. There was an open deck at the stern of the upper deck, but the seats were fully occupied. Some people sat on the lifebuoy at the stern, and others leaned on the railing to feel the gentle sea breeze. They also wanted to sit in the open-air seats, waiting to watch the display of fireworks that would burst overhead.

A father and son had nothing to do but count the number of lifebuoys at the stern of the boat. The father remembered counting with his son that there were eight rows of lifebuoys, with eight in each row for a total of 64.

The passengers heard that the captain turned off the lights for the convenience of watching the fireworks, but in fact it was the captain’s habit to sail at night to reduce light interference with vision. Some passengers felt uncomfortable with the darkness, so more people went to the open deck.

The full moon of the Mid-Autumn Festival hung in the night sky, casting a clear view across the sea. With only mild wind and waves, the ferry sailed smoothly on.


The moment of impact came very suddenly.

In the dark sea, the captain and a few people suddenly saw a ship approaching on the port side. The captain accelerated the rudder to turn right, the passengers heard a the sudden screeching of machinery, and everyone felt the Lamma IV accelerating. A family of four said that they only went on the ship to “watch the fireworks” but did not expect the disaster that was to come.

The ship only accelerated for about five seconds before it was too late to avoid the impending doom.


Everyone felt a strong shock. Someone sitting on the upper deck left chair was sent flying and hit their head on the railing, causing his teeth to fall out. An entire family fell to the ground. Many people started screaming. Shouts of “Help! Help!” started to fill the dark night. On the stern of the open deck, someone fell to the ground, face to the sky. Another was unconscious. Some were bleeding. In the chaos came the sound of the ship dragging and rubbing, coming from the port side of the collision area.

In the midst of the wailing and panic, the staff called the police. “The ship was hit, the location is near the Lamma Island pier…” Other passengers were shocked and also picked up the phone to call the police. Some rushed to check the status of their relatives.

The next change came quickly, but they did not know that Lamma IV had only 118 seconds from the time of the collision to the time it fell into the seabed.

The 2,200 page long police death investigation report obtained from the Coroner’s Court by the families of the Lamma IV victims.

If you only had 118 seconds…?

If the ship collides, the ship will not necessarily sink, nor will it it necessarily sink fast. This was the mindset of many onboard.

However, passengers on the ship had no time to think.

After the collision, people first checked on the safety of their relatives who were scattered all over the boat floor. Most of the Hong Kong Electric employees who came to the National Day Boat Tour to enjoy the fireworks were in groups of families. Some of them were families of four with a pair of children aged three and four, some brought their parents to enjoy the fireworks comfortably, and some were two couples traveling together for the long Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day holiday.

From the crash to the seabed.

The passenger who had his teeth knocked out had arrived on the ship with his parents and brother. He gathered himself, feeling a sharp pain in his mouth. “I saw my father and brother lying on the ground. However, there was no sign of my mother. I then called the police while going into the cabin to get life jackets. Once I was back on the open deck, I found that my feet were soaked in water…” At this time, many people rushed into the cabin, and he followed. “The boat suddenly seemed to tilt vertically, and a lot of water rushed into the cabin from the stern, causing me to float on the water. Then, a row of stools in the cabin came falling towards me, and I was hit on both of my feet…” After being rescued, he found out he had lost his father.

(Photo by Sam Tsang/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

How much can you do in 118 seconds?

A Hong Kong Electric staff member on board the Lamma IV was preparing a Q&A game for the passengers to enjoy when suddenly he felt the jolt of the collision. Quickly, he held onto the railing, staying on his feet. He then rushed to the open deck to discover passengers thrown askew across the deck. He dialed the police. It was 8:21:03 pm. The staff member then started handing out lifebuoys to passengers. Then, the ship started to tilt. “The ship sank in an instant,” he later recalled. The staff member then grabbed 3 lifebuoys and was plunged into the cold dark sea.

From the discovery of water on Lamma IV’s stern deck to the entire ship plunging vertically, people’s described the process as: “very fast”, “in a flash,” “suddenly,” and “someone was ready to hand out life jackets but that wasn’t quick enough, since the ship sank 2 seconds later.”

Those who called the police, took care of their families, or looked for their family members could not find lifejackets in time. Most people who found life jackets couldn’t put them on in time; the fortunate ones could grab lifebuoys when they fell into the water. However, the unfortunate were trapped in the cabin with no chance to get to the deck; some people had rushed back to the cabin from the deck to look for lost family members.

The water level continued to rise, and people struggled desperately. Some people were confused and suddenly woke up to take more breaths, while others were sucked into the deep dark seabed.

Only later did we learn that the Lamma IV sank in 118 seconds – less than two minutes, from the time of the collision.

Anger, loss, and goodbyes

“My family and I were separated.” When Lamma IV tilted over and the seawater started to crash in, many people could not forget the moment when they started to lose their grip and footing.

The mother of a family of four, who does administrative work for Hong Kong Electric, recalled that her family was sitting in the last row on the right side of the lower deck. Her daughter studies in K2, and her son studies in K1. After the collision with the Sea Smooth, the mother immediately called the police. However, after only speaking two sentences, debris from the upper deck began to fall down the stairs. Someone shouted “the boat is sinking!” In the chaos, the family was not wearing life jackets. The two parents only focused on escaping with their two children. The husband took the youngest son along the aisle to escape to the middle of the ferry, but it started to tilt, causing many objects to fall and block their path. With the path blocked, the mother shouted to a staff member across from her, “Save my daughter first! Save my daughter.”

“The crew immediately stepped over the seats on the ship and went to my eldest daughter to help her step over the seats. I also followed and stepped over the seats and went near the lower level doorway. Suddenly, there was a large amount of seawater gushing in. When the water gushed in, it already covered my whole body, and I was separated from my husband, eldest daughter and my son …”

At that time, Lamma IV was almost vertical. The mother felt a current pulling her to the door of the cabin. She grabbed the railing but found herself in the middle of the sea. She met up with her husband on the rescue boat in the dark sea, but there was no trace of their children…

Lamma IV did not sink completely. The stern of the ship was stranded on the seabed, the bow was sticking out of the water, and the people inside the cabin were trapped in the nearly vertical cabin, submerged in seawater.

An engineer with Hong Kong Electric had boarded the ferry with his parents. AT the moment of collision, he was sitting with his mother in the front row of the upper deck. They were fine. The son then ran to the open deck to look for their father, seeing him on the ground with a pained expression. He accompanied his father into the cabin to re-join his mother, and to his surprise, he said, “After holding my father for a few steps, the boat began to tilt and sink vertically into the sea. At that moment, I had not yet re-joined my mother and wasn’t walking in a stable manner. I heard many people screaming for help, and I was very frightened and drank a few mouthfuls of seawater. In the water, I struggled with others and pushed away debris, and I was separated from my father, but he was in my sight…”

“By this time, the seawater had reached the upper and lower stairs of the cabin, and people were struggling in the cabin. After a few minutes, the ship’s lights went out, and it was dark inside.”

On the stairs, which were almost vertical, passengers saw the captain, who was shouting. “He said his arm was broken, and that he couldn’t help the passengers. He kept saying he was sorry and told the passengers to calm down. He had called the police and sounded the alarm for firefighters to come and rescue us.”  Many passengers remember the captain kept saying “sorry,” and some were surprised at the time, not understanding why the captain was apologizing.

The engineer and his father were rescued, but his mother was unconscious in the cabin and died after a failed resuscitation.

On board were also a pair of couples. When Lamma IV began to tilt, they all agreed, “We will hold hands and not let go of each other. …” But the boat sank so fast that they only held onto each other for 20 seconds. In the waves, the four were separated. The girlfriend of a Hong Kong Electric employee was killed.

For the father and son who were counting the lifebuoys on board, the father only came to pick up a lifebuoy on the open deck, while the stern of the boat sank into the sea. The family of four was separated in the blink of an eye. He was sucked in by the whirlpool caused by the rapid sinking of the ship, falling 10 feet into the sea. “My glasses fell off, making my vision blurry. I couldn’t see the surrounding environment but had a lifebuoy in my hands. I struggled upwards. There was a lot of debris in the water, but I swam up to the surface. I was separated from my family when I emerged. I saw my wife on the lifeboat. In the end, only my daughter was rescued…”

A passenger who was a nurse, who was also in the open deck, saw the stern of the boat start to sink and told her son and daughter to hold on to the side of the cabin door and the stool in the middle of the deck to stand firm while her husband tried to get a lifebuoy. “In an instant, I was sinking together with the ship, and I was separated from my family.”

As she sank, she struggled to swim upstream but was blocked by a canopy on the deck, making it difficult for her to escape. “I struggled and finally got rid of the canopy.”

Only 3 of the 4 in the family were rescued, with no news of their son.

“The following day at 12:45 p.m., we received a call to go to the public mortuary in Kwai Chung…”

Family members pay their respects at sea the day after the disaster. (October 2, 2012, Photo by K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

The moment of life and death.

The most seriously injured people at the moment of the collision were sitting on the port side of the lower deck, directly where the bow of the Sea Smooth crashed. A person was performing a magic card trick at this location, suffering the brunt of the impact. A Hong Kong Electric staff member was resting with his eyes closed when he felt a “strong vibration” and realising that something had collided with the ship. But by then he lost all feelings in his limbs. His head was injured, and he could not open his eyes. After a while, he was able to open his eyes, but he could only see black and white and he could not see what was happening in front of his eyes. He only knew that he was trapped under something. In a daze, he heard someone shouting his colleague’s name and began to feel water under his feet…

Still feeling groggy, he did not know that the debris fell all the way on his head. The boat began to sink.

The water level rose all the way up to his face, and he suddenly woke up.

“I started to feel my limbs again, and the water kept rising. When the water rose to my face, I managed to kick off the debris that was holding me and floated to the surface.”

At the very same time, his colleague who sat in front of him playing with his magic cards, his engineer colleague who sat to his right, and the many lost parents and children were still struggling in the confusion, deep in depths of the ship. In the end, 39 people perished.

At last, the light of salvation.

How long was the wait for help? Feelings of fear, fatigue, and worry quickly sank into the hearts of the survivors. Each responded differently when asked about how long they waited until help arrived. A few minutes? 10 minutes? Half an hour?

Finally, the lights of the rescue team flickered towards the sunk vessel. The survivors heard the sound of firefighters breaking the glass, telling those still inside to swim out as soon as possible. Some firefighters said “the boat started to sink faster.”

The Hong Kong Electric employee who escaped death remembered that “the sea was very chaotic, during which I was holding on to a rubber rope, but no one paid attention to me.” Finally, someone rescued him. He then flickered in and out of consciousness, only remembering someone asking him about his personal details. The next thing he remembers is waking up at Queen Mary Hospital’s A&E.

As the rescue continued, the firefighters rescued a pair of parents and asked if they wanted to be sent to be treated. They said no, wanting the firefighters to keep looking for their son.

At 9:00 p.m., the National Day fireworks were set off in the night sky over the Victoria Harbour.

Next: Part 6

The story of survival.