Thursday, 4 October 2012

Ferry Accident Raises Ethical Issues

Besides the obvious safety issues raised by Monday’s collision between two ferries which resulted in at least 38 deaths, coverage of the accident has raised ethical concerns both journalistic and ferry industry-related.

To take Wednesday’s South China Morning Post’s extensive analysis of the disaster first, journalists appear to have taken a prejudiced stance in their reportage, referring twice to one vessel (in each case the Sea Smooth operated by Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferries) crashing into the other (in each case the Lamma IV operated by Hongkong Electric).

 A reporter called Lo Wei sets the tone on the front page with his or her piece about one of the families travelling on the Lamma IV (the Hongkong Electric boat). Lo writes “They had just settled in to enjoy the outing when a ferry crashed into their vessel.”

Then, on page 2, Alex Lo and Amy Nip get only as far as their second paragraph before they write “barely ten minutes after they had left Lamma Island, the vessel owned by Hongkong Electric would be struck by a ferry, causing its stern to sink”.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the previous day’s SCMP had carried an article headlined “38 die in Hong Kong ferry disaster”, credited to staff reporters, in which Hongkong Electric’s Director of Operations, Yuen Sui See, was quoted as saying, without proffering any evidence for his assertion, "The ferry rammed the side of our boat. They didn't bother and just left".

In fairness to the Post’s staff, the article carried the following “digest”, published at the top of the webpage: “A boat owned by Hongkong Electric carrying more than 100 staff workers and their family members collided with a ferry in waters off Lamma Island at about 8.23pm on October 1, 2012”.

This is the kind of factual, objective and even-handed reporting one would expect from a newspaper that had pretences to any repute whatsoever, the kind of reporting that is, as we have seen, sadly missing from later accounts.

 Another aspect of the reporting that causes concern is the way in which the coming together of the two vessels has been portrayed. A graphic on page A20 of Wednesday’s edition shows the Lamma IV moving across the path of the Sea Smooth at right angles from the right, with accompanying text informing the reader that “when crossing the path of another vessel, the one on the starboard (right) has right of way”.

However, this appears to be a piece of gratuitous and misleading information since, as another graphic (opposite on the same page) and an article (on a previous page) – not to mention common sense – clearly suggest, the collision was to all intents and purposes the marine equivalent of a head-on crash. One vessel (the Sea Smooth) was heading to the Lamma Ferry Pier from Victoria Harbour, while the other (the Lamma IV) had recently departed from the Lamma Ferry Pier for Victoria Harbour.

Journalists Olga Wong and Ada Lee quote a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers, Louis Szeto Ka Sing, as saying it was likely that “the two skippers had not tried to avoid one another until the last minute, causing the ferry’s bow to crash into the other boat’s stern”.

Szeto continues, “The likely scenario was that neither of the vessels, travelling at full speed, gave way to the other, but when they came to realise the danger it was too late”. (Indeed, the fact that it was not the bow itself of the Sea Smooth which was damaged but the left-hand side of the vessel aft of the bow suggests that the pilot may have made a last-minute attempt to veer away.)  

Which disturbingly suggests that standards of piloting on the seas round Hong Kong are little better than standards of driving on the roads of Hong Kong, where a predominant attitude among road users from cyclists to bus drivers, by way of motorcyclists, taxi drivers, minibus drivers, truck drivers and private car drivers, is to get there before the other bugger.  

I await the outcome of the enquiry – slated to last for six months – with interest. I wonder in particular what the eye-witnesses, especially those travelling alfresco at the back of each ferry, will be able to remember, and hope they evince a rather better grasp of the facts than some of those reporting on the event. 


Anonymous said...

You forgot pedestrians

Anonymous said...

"...and hope they evince a rather better grasp of the facts than some of those reporting on the event. "

Or those blogging! For starters, Sea Breeze is a nasty drink you get fed on a Jaspa's junk. The HKKF ferry to which I assume you were referring is called Sea Smooth.

Next, it's pretty plain from the pictures of the ferry that the bow of the port hull of the catamaran was the point of impact, and not the "left hand side aft of the bow". The damage to Lamma IV, meanwhile, extended down the port side aft. Now, unless Lamma IV was moving sideways at speed, it is pretty much a statement of fact that Sea Smooth hit, collided with or even smashed into the side of Lamma IV. That does not apportion blame in any way, nor does it explain how they got there, it's simply what happened.

I find it more objectionable that Louis Szeto Ka Sing, an expert, speculates on the events leading to the collision without a shred of evidence other than the damage to the boats. Only the points of impact are currently beyond dispute.

Finally, if he does want to speculate, it is worth noting that in the positions both boats were in relative to each other at the point of collision (again based only on the impact damage), Lamma IV had the right of way.

ulaca said...

Thanks for the correction - duly amended. Another possibility - and all must remain conjecture until the forensics have been completed - is that Lamma IV went across the bows of Sea Smooth.

Meanwhile, prize for most clueless interpretation of events so far goes to the Telegraph with this:

"Part of [Sea Smooth's] left stern appear (sic) to have been damaged, suggesting it was hit from behind by the passenger ferry.

Passengers standing on the craft's observation deck, at the back of the ship, would have had a clear sight of the passenger ferry as the collision occurred."

ulaca said...

First Nonnie, mea culpa, walking remains the single most unpredictable kinetic activity in Hong Kong.

Anonymous said...

"Another possibility - and all must remain conjecture until the forensics have been completed - is that Lamma IV went across the bows of Sea Smooth."

It's possible, but again, in that scenario Lamma IV would have had right of way. A vessel coming from the right has precedence. (Obviously if you're in a dinghy and the guy on the left is an oil tanker you might not want to push the point, but...)

--Nonnie 2

Anonymous said...

Meant to add - regardless of who has right of way, responsibility to avoid collision rests with both skippers.

-Nonnie 2

ulaca said...

As I see it, if two vessels are plying the same route in two adjacent lanes in opposite directions, neither can be meaningfully on the right - inasmuch as each is on the right of the other logically speaking. Until and unless one turns sharply to the right near the point at which they should pass, which would be verging on the suicidal.

Anonymous said...

An abrupt turn to the right would only be suicidal if the vessels in your scenario were out-of-lane - oncoming vessels should be passing to the right of each other, where space and other considerations allow. Other considerations might be obstructions, and in this instance it might be worth noting that Lamma IV was restricted in terms of being able to turn (further) right as there is a light marking shallow water just inshore of where the accident occured.

--Nonnie 2

ulaca said...

Interesting you mention this, as my thinking has been focusing on what might have been to the left of Sea Smooth that may have caused Lamma IV to cut right. Other vessels? In that event, of course, one might expect it merely to slow down, if it had seen the hazard in advance and taken the necessary decision.

All speculation of course, and in the absence of videos (unless of course smartphones have captured key moments), we shall have to rely on forensic evidence as to speeds and angles, a well as witness testimony.

I am not very sanguine about the latter, though, given that all the fatalities took place on one boat and that the voyagers on that boat are all either employees or related to employees of HK's richest man. Interesting times ahead, as respective PR machineries and legal teams continue to attempt to ground the fight on the terrain of their own choosing.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. The rising hysteria ain't helping.

If Sea Smooth had been keeping very tight to the headland and the associated light, they may not have been leaving very much room for traffic coming the other way (which according to the rules of the road should be staying on the Lamma side of oncoming traffic). The two vessels may also have been hidden by each other by the headland, and only became mutually visible as they both rounded it, at a closing speed of perhaps 40kts. If both were really hugging their respective sections of coast, that may have been as little as 40 seconds if my basic maths and map calcs are correct.

-Nonnie 2

J said...

You may be interested to know that several reports in the Chinese media quoted a passenger on the HK Electric ferry as saying that the boat was going 'slowly'.

Looking back on this now, I wonder if this was what he was coached to say. Certainly, it's odd why a ferry on its way to take eager passengers to see the fireworks would not try and get there ASAP to get the best spot in the harbour, especially with conditions being near perfect!

ulaca said...

J, interesting indeed. More likely for the passengers to be crying 'faai di! faai di!' in such circumstances.

ulaca said...

The papers say that the police are set to interview the adult passengers on each boat, as well as the crew. I imagine they'll also be wanting to speak to the various vessels that were reported as being in the vicinity, which indeed were on hand to pick up many of the passengers from the sinking Lamma IV. They may well have got the best view of what happened, at least of those who will be willing to report honestly and fully what happened.

ewaffle said...

"The ferry rammed the side of our boat. They didn't bother and just left".

From the coverage I have seen it seems as if the second sentence is true--the ferry left the area after the collision. Isn't the first duty of a vessel after a collision, if it is able, to stand by and give assistance to the damaged vessel?

This may be not the case in a crowded harbor...

Anonymous said...

TVB's Pearl Report was perpetuating the myth of Lamma IV approaching at right angles to Sea Smooth even though their own graphics and pictures showed this would mean it heading straight for the rocks of Pak Kok less than 200 metres away!

ulaca said...

Edward, the ferry was taking on water so most "experts" are agreed that the skipper's first duty was to his own passengers.

Nonnie, I missed this. Anythng new?Any reason to watch online?

Anonymous said...

Two new data: a survivor said that Lamma IV left Yung Shue Wan 15 minutes later than the scheduled 8pm sailing, and although both boats were equipt with radar, Lamma IV was not required to use it, and may not have been using it.

Anonymous said...

One more thing: the lights had, according to the Lamma IV survivor, been turned off on board.

ulaca said...

Lends a certain credence to J's idea that Lamma IV might have been in a hurry, given that a boat of that type would take, what, around 30-35 minutes to get to its destination.

Not being lit up could obviously have been a factor too.

Anonymous said...

The clinching evidence for me is that according to HK and Kowloon Ferry' own GM, the captain of Sea Smooth said it was all his fault.

ulaca said...

I interpreted that in almost the opposite way. The captain's in his fixties or sixties from what we've been told - a bit of an old sea dog - and then as he comes towards retirement this happens.

Have you ever known anyone, including yourself if I may be so bold, admit to liability in an accident in lieu of other evidence in HK or anywhere else for that matter?

But we've heard plenty of people crying that it was "all my fault" even when it wasn't, overcome by the emotion brought on by the enormity of a tragedy.

ulaca said...

Thanks to a Lammaite who has sent me this, from a Lamma discussion board, written just two and a half hours after the collision by a passenger who had been travelling on board Sea Smooth to Yung Shue Wan ferry pier:
“The ferry crashed directly into something…and threw people forward in the cabin. About five minutes after the crash, the ferry began to take on water near the front of the cabin on the first floor. People began to be very frightened at that point. We put on life vests and went toward the back of the ferry…Luckily for us on the ferry, the crash seems to have occurred close to the pier, and the ferry made it to the pier, where all of the passengers disembarked, apparently with only minor injuries.”

Anonymous said...

Today's paper, reporting on testimony given to the commission of inquiry by the captain of Lamma IV, suggests that the skipper did not take any evasive action for a minute or more after seeing on the radar that his boat and Sea Smooth were on pretty much the same line, A.K.A. a collision course.

Crucially, assuming he's telling something approximating to the truth, in terms of why his ultimate attempt to change course at a distance of approximately 550 meters from the other vessel was ineffectual, he is reported as saying that there were rocks in the vicinity. (The location of the rocks are not specified, but were likely to have been to starboard in the vicinity of Shek Kok Tsui off north-western Lamma.)

The scenario suggested in the aftermath of the accident by Louis Szeto Ka Sing, namely, that the two skippers 'had not tried to avoid one another until the last minute, causing the ferry’s bow to crash into the other boat’s stern', still appears the most plausible explanation.

I await the Sea Smooth skipper's testimony with interest.