Hong Kong ferry captain sentenced to 8 years' jail over 2012 ferry tragedy that killed 39

The bow of the Lamma IV boat partially submerged on Oct 2, 2012, during rescue operations the morning after it collided with a Hong Kong ferry. -- PHOTO: AFP
The bow of the Lamma IV boat partially submerged on Oct 2, 2012, during rescue operations the morning after it collided with a Hong Kong ferry. -- PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - A Hong Kong boat captain was on Monday sentenced to eight years in prison for the manslaughter of 39 people in a 2012 ferry collision, the city’s worst maritime disaster in nearly four decades.Sea Smooth skipper Lai Sai Ming, 56, was found guilty on Saturday following a trial that gripped the city, over the accident between his high-speed ferry and a pleasure boat near Lamma Island.“I have concluded you should go to prison for eight years,” judge Brian Keith told a court.

“It’s been a personal tragedy for you and your family but it cannot begin to compare with the grief of those who lost their loved ones,” he said, as Lai listened from the dock with his head lowered.Lai was jailed for a further 18 months for endangering the safety of others at sea, but the terms will be served concurrently. He could have been given a life sentence.Chow Chi-wai, 58, who was steering the other boat, leisure boat Lamma IV, with 120 people on board during the collision on Oct 1, 2012, was jailed for nine months for endangering others’ safety at sea. He was acquitted of all 39 charges of manslaughter.

Saturday’s verdict came after a nine-member jury deliberated for four days following a 60-day trial. It found Lai guilty by a majority of seven-to-two. 

Chow's lawyer Gerard McCoy said that, after the October 1, 2012 incident, Chow “has deep, abiding fear of the sea” and cannot go on ferries anymore. Lai's lawyer Audrey Campbell-Moffat refused to comment on Saturday's judgement.

The pair had both pleaded not guilty to the 39 counts each of manslaughter and have been remanded in custody until sentencing.

The jury deliberated for almost four days before coming to a decision on Saturday afternoon.

Before the verdicts were read out after 60 days of court hearings, deputy High Court judge Brian Keith called for the packed courtroom to remain still, saying "these are moments of high tension".

"The lives of the 39 people cannot be compensated by this judgement," an emotional Ms Irene Cheng, who lost her 24-year-old son in the boat collision, told reporters after the judgement. Ms Cheng, however, said she accepted the jury's decision.

Hong Kong's justice department will decide this month whether to prosecute several marine department officials for the incident as well, a spokesman said.

The pleasure boat was filled with staff from a Hong Kong electricity provider and their families who were going to watch a holiday fireworks display when the collision occurred.

Scores of people were thrown into the sea when the Lamma's left rear side was torn open by the impact. Others were trapped inside as the boat sank in just two minutes, leaving only its bow protruding from the water.

The fatal accident raised questions over safety in the waters of Hong Kong - one of the world's busiest ports - after an independent commission found a "litany of errors" had contributed to the disaster.

Victims could have had vital extra minutes to escape if the Lamma IV had been equipped with a watertight door, while several were actually left trapped when seats fell on top of them, the inquiry found.

The boat also had no children's life jackets onboard when it sank, claiming the lives of eight youngsters.

It was the deadliest maritime accident in the territory since 1971, when a Hong Kong-Macau ferry sank during a typhoon, leaving 88 people dead.

Several other incidents since - including two high-speed ferry accidents that injured scores of passengers and the grounding of a large container ship - have worried those who cross Hong Kong's waters.

New ports in the nearby Chinese trading hub of the Pearl River Delta have driven a surge in maritime traffic in the island's ports, with vessel arrivals almost doubling between 1990 and 2013 to some 200,000 a year.