Dozens dead after passenger vessels collide off Hong Kong

Updated 2:06 AM EDT, Tue October 2, 2012

Story highlights

NEW: Impact was like hitting a rock or a lighthouse, a passenger says

NEW: Rescue workers continue to search for survivors near the stricken vessel

Death toll from the accident near Lamma Island rises to 36, Hong Kong authorities say

Passengers thrown into water; more than 100 people have been rescued so far

(CNN) —  

At least 36 people have died after two passenger boats collided off Hong Kong’s Lamma Island on Monday evening, throwing more than 100 people into the sea.

The crash happened on a night when Hong Kong’s busy waters were even more crowded than usual, as the city celebrated China’s National Day.

The collision involved a passenger ferry traveling from Hong Kong Island to Lamma Island and a vessel owned by the Hong Kong Electric Company, which was carrying company employees and their families to watch the scheduled fireworks display. Government officials said it occurred off Lamma’s coast about 8:20 p.m.

Government officials said the collision occurred off Lamma’s coast at around 8:20 p.m. local time.

“I thought we’d hit a rock or a lighthouse,” said Chris Head, a teacher who was on the passenger ferry. He said the vessel went from what felt like full speed to “an abrupt halt.”

Head said the force of the impact threw him out of his seat at the back of the ferry, which was not very full of people.

As the damaged ferry began to move toward a pier in the small town of Yung Shue Wan on Lamma, Head said, he could see the other boat had started to sink into the water vertically, like the Titanic.

According to the Hong Kong Fire Services Department (FSD), which led the rescue, the vessel sank quickly after the impact. It said low visibility and many obstacles on board made it difficult for rescuers.

The FSD said its rescue boats, including a diving support vessel, arrived on the scene at 8:41 p.m. local time and managed to pull 123 people from the water.

Map: Collision site
Map: Collision site
PHOTO: Google Maps

Twenty-eight people were declared dead at the scene, and eight others were certified dead upon arrival at the hospital, according to a statement early Tuesday from the Hong Kong government. The survivors were taken to five hospitals around the city, with nine said to have serious injuries, the government statement added.

“After 10 minutes out, a boat crashed into ours from the side at very high speed,” one male survivor from the accident told the South China Morning Post, a local newspaper. “The rear of the ferry started to sink. I suddenly found myself deep under the sea. I swam hard and tried to grab a life buoy. I don’t know where my two kids are.”

Residents on Lamma, a lightly populated island southwest of Hong Kong Island, reported being awakened in the middle of the night by the massive rescue operation going on offshore.

On Tuesday, the front of the stricken vessel was still sticking out of the water, tethered to a barge equipped with a crane just a few hundred meters from the coast of Lamma. Emergency services boats surrounded the scene, and divers conducted a search.

The authorities have not ruled out the possibility that some people may still be inside the vessel or missing.

Despite a hole torn in its bow, the passenger ferry was able to dock safely after the crash. Government officials have not confirmed whether passengers aboard that vessel were injured, but Head said nobody around him appeared to have been hurt.

The narrow sea lanes leading into Hong Kong’s main deepwater harbor are some of the busiest in Asia, with giant commercial freighters, ocean liners, passenger ferries and private boats of all sizes sharing the waters.

Hong Kong is home to more than 200 outlying Islands, including Lamma. Hong Kong Island is on the south side of Victoria harbor, with Kowloon forming its northern shore. North of Kowloon lie the New Territories, which stretch all the way to mainland China.

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CNN’s Judy Kwon, Jethro Mullen, Pamela Boykoff and Mark Morgenstein contributed to this report.