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2012 Lamma Island Death Reports

Part 6: The story of survival.

Part 6 is written from the perspective of reporter Cheng Sze Sze as a prologue to the collection of articles. Since the closure of Stand News, Cheng has continued her work as an independent journalist, freelancing for media outlets such as The Collective.

The 2012 National Day fireworks display was marked by a major maritime disaster in Hong Kong’s history. The collision of two ships caused the death of 39 people and injured 97. The Lamma IV sank quickly, touching the seabed in 118 seconds. Before those fated 118 seconds, many of the passengers were listening to music, watching a magic show, getting ready to play a quiz game, or holding hands with their dad to count the safety rings aboard, only to be drowned by the sea 118 seconds later, or even hit by the seats that were thrown across the ship by the collision. Thirty-nine people, including eight children, have been separated from their loved ones since then. They may not have known what happened when they passed away. As a result, their families have not given up their quest for the truth.

One of the reasons for the rapid sinking in 118 seconds was the “missing watertight door.” The “watertight door” between the fifth and sixth compartments, which was marked on the original plan, was not built. Seawater quickly poured into the sixth compartment, causing three compartments to fill with water. This “missing watertight door” also affected the calculation of the sink resistance data, causing the Lamma IV to be overburdened with an extra 15 tonnes for many years, which greatly reduced its buoyancy and caused significant casualties. This error reveals that mistakes were made one after another in the design, construction, and survey of the Lamma IV. For nine years, families have been waiting for further criminal prosecution and a Coroner’s Court to be held so that the truth can be fully disclosed. Unfortunately, after eight years of police investigation, the Department of Justice has indicated that no further prosecution will be made, and the coroner has decided not to hold a coroner’s inquest. 

A request made with doubt

In March this year, the families had no choice but to request a copy of the “Death Investigative Report” that the police submitted to the Coroner’s Court in 2015, in the hopes of finding out the truth through the police’s investigation documents even in the absence of an inquest, witness testimonies, or a cross-examination by the family’s lawyers. I remember that at that time, the family members were very hesitant to apply for the report because there were only a few of them left who still insisted on doing so. They were also worried that the large pile of documents would not give them any new clues, and they were afraid that it would put relatives through even more pain and suffering. The families also worried about the $4 per page cost photocopying the report, which meant that they would have to pay an exorbitant amount just to have a chance to reveal the truth. The families had no true legal support and were relying on former Legislative Councilor, Lawyer James To for advice. He has since been arrested for subversion of political power for participating in the 2021 pro-democracy pre-election. The families asked, “Who will read the report after paying for it? Who will follow up?”

There were no answers to all these questions, but Ms. Leung, one of the relatives of the deceased, was willing to try. She immediately joined the Free Legal Advice Scheme of Hong Kong University to seek legal advice. Ms. Leung, an elegant and refined woman, lost her 23-year-old brother, Leung Ka Kit, a trainee engineer at Hong Kong Electric, in the disaster. She and her family did not give interviews for many years, waiting quietly for the police investigation and the Coroner’s Court to investigate the matter. It was only at the end of last year, when she realized that the matter might not be resolved, that she and other families held a press conference to give interviews to the media. 

Ms. Leung is a strong sister. She tries very hard to analyze rationally in front of the camera, explaining how the disaster reveals that preventing marine hazards should be in the public interest. At the same time, she tries very hard not to cry in front of the camera because she is afraid that her parents will see her crying. She is scared it will make them sad again. But when she read the first page of the death investigation report and when she went back to Hong Kong University, where her brother graduated, she was in so much pain that she could not control herself, broke down, and starting crying in the university. She later shared that she also cried when watching TV dramas, so she wasn’t surprised. In a later interview, she said, “We need to move on, but we cannot forget. So cry when you’re sad, move on after that final tear, but never forget.”

Topics ignored by the higher-ups

Family members are one of the reasons why journalists persist. I remember that in November of last year, when I was still the director of Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK)’s “Hong Kong Connection,” I invited Ms. Leung and other family members to come to RTHK to meet with the producer of “Hong Kong Connection” at that time. The producer asked me to follow up on the Lamma disaster because many years ago, when he was still a junior editorial director, he filmed “Hong Kong Connection: No Fireworks on National Day this Year,” which documented the pain of the families one year after the disaster. Years later, he still hasn’t forgotten. Unfortunately, the project was not approved by RTHK, “No Fireworks on the National Day this Year” was shelved, and he and I had to leave the broadcasting industry.

So I drifted around with Ms. Leung’s family’s story and was fortunate enough to come to Stand News. The families then obtained the death investigation report at the end of September. Here, I met up with a former Cable News reporter, Chan Yuen-ting. She was the most persistent reporter on the Lamma disaster, and every year, as October 1 approached, we would see her heartfelt reports, so that this memory would not sink away and be forgotten. She continued reporting on and investigating the disaster for eight years until the end of last year, when a mass resignation broke out in the Cable News Division in protest of layoffs by the management. She was one of the reporting officers who resigned. She said that she did not cry when she resigned, but when she received a message from the families of the victims thanking her for her eight years of hard work, she felt a lump form in her throat because she was afraid that she would be unable to follow up the matter any further. 

Surviving reports, surviving reporters

During the media blackout in Hong Kong, we all happened to be here at Stand News. A former RTHK, a former Cable, and a former Apple Daily reporter – three unemployed people in total. An investigative journalist who joined looking for a matter where he could investigate freely and our lead who had no salary rounded out the team. The five of us put on glasses, made coffee, and spent two months to “fight to the death” with the 2,000+ page report. 

We have seen the flaws in the ship inspection system of the Marine Department. The Marine Department approved the plan or survey of Lamma IV at least 39 times. Most of them were on board in-person, but the police claimed that they did not realize that the watertight door was missing. 39 approvals were made, and each one could have been a chance to save the lives of 39 people. We have also seen the conflicting statements of the shipyard design company, which is suspected to be shifting blame; we have seen the senior management of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry refusing to give evidence to the police and dodging the issue of 24-hour shifts for their staff; and we have also seen that the police had proposed quite explicitly to hold a Coroner’s Court, which was ultimately rejected by the coroner. 

Ms. Leung thanked us after the story came out, but I said we just stick to the values we believe in. We journalists pursue the truth and justice. 

Of course, it takes hard work and sacrifice from many people to create a space where we can pursue these values. I remember that night when we were still in a hurry, struggling to meet deadlines, when the TV kept playing the phrase “You have to find evidence to prove that you have broken the law; if you can’t find enough today, you can find enough tomorrow. And if you can’t find enough tomorrow, you can find enough the day after tomorrow.” **I was sad that most reporters were working as hard as ever.** I was worried about many colleagues and friends, but I had to keep my head down and work hard to get the story done. I always make fun of our volunteer leader, saying that history will remember you and nail you on the pillar of honor. He said, “If we’re all nailed on the pillar, you reporters will definitely be part of it”.

Other than us reporters, there is also a team of photographers, artists, and editors who brought the disaster of nine years ago back to life and must be remembered in history – especially the girl on the art team who spent months looking at data, plans, and documents to bring the story to life without pictures. It turned out that she also knew one of the victims of the disaster, and she also remembered the disaster when she was a child. This felt like fate in a way. 

My only regret is that the number of views for both videos is low. As a content creator, it’s a pity if such good content can’t reach the wider public. So I’m thinking about whether the content is not enough, whether the pacing is too slow, or whether the graphics are not attractive enough. I welcome all readers to give us their opinions, so that we can seize the opportunity to make more and better content! (But actually: hey, you guys should watch the videos now!)

Links to the videos:

Note from translator: the article originally had 2 videos, now unlisted due to the closing of Stand News. These 2 videos seem to be the hard work of the art team that painstakingly recreated the tragedy in order for it to be remembered.

Surviving screenshot of the video thumbnail.

Stand News Preservation
2012 Lamma Island Death Reports