Hong Kong ferry accident leaves 87 injured

HONG KONG - A high-speed ferry travelling from Hong Kong to Macau collided with an "unidentified object" on Friday, injuring 87 people and raising new concerns over maritime safety a year after a ferry crash claimed 39 lives.

Last month, the city marked the one-year anniversary of the fatal ferry collision off Lamma island, Hong Kong's worst maritime disaster for over 40 years that sparked widespread shock in a city usually proud of its safety record.

In the latest accident, the double-deck hydrofoil Madeira carrying 105 passengers and 10 crew hit "an unidentifiable object" around 1.15am near one of Hong Kong's small outlying islands, boat operator TurboJet said.

"We know 87 people were injured, three of whom are in a serious condition," a Hong Kong government spokeswoman told AFP. It was not clear what the object was but passengers described being hurled out of their seats by the force of the night-time collision.

"There was suddenly a loud bang. The ferry was thrown upwards. Then many passengers were thrown out from their seats," one passenger identified as Mr Wong was quoted as saying by Hong Kong's Apple Daily.

Multiple passengers were stretchered into ambulances by emergency services staff, some wrapped in neck braces and breathing through oxygen masks. Some of the injured limped away in bandages after treatment at the scene.

One passenger told Hong Kong television the crash felt like a "very big bang".

"I could hear the sound 'Bang'," he said.

Hong Kong's waters are notoriously crowded.

Hundreds of vessels, from rickety wooden sampans to enormous container ships, ply the shipping routes that criss-cross the territory every day.

Ferries are a vital part of the transport network, connecting the main urban areas to Hong Kong's numerous outlying islands, the Chinese mainland and Macau.

But a spate of recent crashes has caused alarm.

Democratic Party lawmaker James To, who has lobbied on behalf of the family members of those killed in last year's crash near Lamma, told AFP that there are growing concerns over safety standards for vessels travelling in Hong Kong waters.

"What I am concerned (about) is the safety of vessels and the system that operates them," he said.

A former high-speed ferry captain told AFP that the city's waters were often littered with debris - ranging from wheels to refrigerators to even double beds - possibly discarded by passing cargo or tourist vessels.

"In that area when I was a high-speed ferry captain, I have seen many times very big objects," said Mr Yeung Pui-Keung, who now trains seamen at a maritime school.

"I was lucky I saw them. It would be good if citizens do not... throw anything into the water," he added.

Immediately after Friday's crash, three fireboats were scrambled to search the scene but failed to find any object in the water, fire officials said.

Of those hospitalised, three were treated for serious injuries.

Japan's foreign ministry said three Japanese nationals were hurt in the ferry accident, one of whom sustained head injuries and was still in hospital.

City authorities were unable to give further information on the nationalities of the injured, but the route between Hong Kong and the gambling haven of Macau is popular with both international and domestic tourists - particularly from the Chinese mainland.

Broadcaster RTHK quoted TurboJet spokesman Wong Man-chung as saying that the high number of injured was due to passengers not wearing their seatbelts.

Spokesman Wong added that he was sure the boat had not crossed the speeding limit and had sustained no major damage.

The safety of Hong Kong's waters was called into question after the fatal October 1, 2012, crash which saw the Lamma IV launch - carrying more than 120 people - collide with the high-speed Sea Smooth ferry near Lamma.

The launch was carrying employees of the Hong Kong Electric utility and their family members and friends, on a pleasure cruise to watch a fireworks display marking China's national day.

A subsequent inquiry found a "litany of errors" contributed to the accident.

The two captains have each been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter and are awaiting trial.

The marine department has tightened inspections to ensure boats meet safety requirements including adequate lifejackets and watertight fittings.

TurboJet was not involved in the fatal Lamma ferry disaster, but one of its vessels collided with a buoy 15 minutes after leaving Macau for Hong Kong in December last year, injuring 26.

In August, three people died when a small wooden boat carrying eight people sunk in Hong Kong waters.