A survivor of the Lamma ferry disaster that claimed his sister’s life said he was “disappointed but resigned” after a Hong Kong judge rejected his bid for a Coroner’s inquest to probe the cause of the tragedy more deeply.
The collision off Lamma Island on the night of October 1, 2012 took the lives of 39 people, including eight children aged 10 or under. Ninety-seven others were injured.
Chiu Ping-chuen and two other relatives of four of the dead made the application in June this year, hoping to uncover more about the incident.
But Court of First Instance judge Russell Coleman rejected the request on Thursday, saying there was not enough evidence to persuade the court to make such an order. He said a report by a Commission of Inquiry (COI) released in April 2013 had established the “immediate” and “structural” causes of the accident.
‘Disappointed but resigned’
“I am disappointed in today’s ruling,” Chiu told reporters outside the court, saying he felt a more in-depth investigation was still warranted, including more probing into the vessel manufacturers and staff. More details of some investigations could also be revealed to the public, he added.
“I feel resigned,” Chiu said.
James To, a former lawmaker and solicitor who has been assisting the families, said the COI completed within one to two years, but police in fact carried on investigating for another six years or so – uncovering more leads and evidence.
Chiu boarded the Lamma IV with his friends and family, including his wife, daughter and elder sister, on a sightseeing trip intended to get a better view of the National Day fireworks. But after a collision with a ferry called the Sea Smooth, the Lamma IV tilted and sank within two minutes.
In previous media interviews, Chiu has described how he slid off the deck of the vessel and was rescued, only to find out that his sister could not be located.
Lai Sai-ming, the captain of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry’s Sea Smooth, was jailed for eight years for manslaughter and for endangering the safety of others at sea.
Chow Chi-wai, the captain of Hongkong Electric’s Lamma IV, was acquitted of manslaughter but found guilty of endangering the safety of others at sea. He was sentenced to nine months behind bars.
A police report first submitted to the coroner in 2015 and finalised in 2020 had recommended that an inquest be held.
Eight years after the accident, the coroner in 2020 ruled that the victims were “unlawfully killed” but decided there would be no inquest, as the functions of the COI and an inquest would have overlapped.
Jeffrey Tam and Colman Li, who represented the families of the victims, told the court new evidence had been unearthed and more witnesses had been located after the COI concluded – all these could be presented at an inquest and shed more light on why the victims died.
An investigation officer was able to identify another company and more staff members involved in the ship construction after the COI wrapped up, Tam had told the court, according to the written judgement released on Thursday. The officer also found people who were involved in the drawings and construction of boat parts and they “offered a version contrary to the evidence given by other people in the COI.”
Tam also argued that there was new evidence showing “further systemic deficiencies which were not included in the 13 recommendations made by the COI.”
Starting his judgement with the line “[I]t started as a celebration, but ended in tragedy,” Judge Coleman went on to explain his reasons for rejecting an inquest.
For the most part, Coleman said the COI report and the subsequent criminal proceedings had covered various aspects that led to the disaster.
“The COI examined not only the immediate cause – the collision – but also the ‘structural’ causes rooted in the design and equipment on board of the vessel,” Coleman wrote.
The justice cited another judge’s remarks, that the purpose of an inquest is to seek out and record as many of the facts concerning the death as the public interest may require. “I agree,” Coleman wrote, “it seems to me that the ultimate yardstick is the public interest.”
“But public interest does not require the unravelling of every possible factual detail through a death inquest,” he said.
Chiu said he and the other applicants would discuss if they would take further action.
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