Six crew members from two passenger boats that collided off Hong Kong's Lamma island, killing 38 people, have been arrested, the territory's security chief has said.
Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong's chief executive, confirmed that 38 people had died and more than 100 had been injured in the disaster, the worst-ever such incident in the territory.
More than 120 people were on board the ferry that sank on late on Monday.
'Endangering lives at sea'
"Police arrested six individuals this afternoon... They are being investigated for endangering people's lives at sea," Security Minister Lai Tung-kwok told a press conference a day after the collision.
"Over 100 people were sent to five hospitals during the incident, nine of them have sustained serious injuries or are in critical condition"
- Fire Services Department statement
He said three crew members of the company pleasure craft that sank in the incident, and where all the fatalities occurred, were detained along with three from the regular ferry vessel that collided with it near Lamma island.
Police chief Tsang Wai-hung said the suspects were responsible for the boats' operation.
"We don't rule out more arrests," he added.
Low visibility hampered rescue efforts, with many passengers trapped in the flooded upturned ferry before it sank on Monday night, said survivors.
Nine people suffered serious injuries or remain in a critical condition, the government said in a statement.
The accident occurred in the waters off Lamma, an island south of Hong Kong popular with tourists and expatriates.
The passengers of the stricken boat had been on their way to watch a fireworks display in Hong Kong harbour when their boat collided with another ferry, filling with water and quickly sinking, fire service officials said.
At least 124 passengers and crew were on the boat, operated by the Hong Kong Electric Company, a representative of the company said.
"Our ferry left Lamma island at 8:15pm [local time; 12:15pm GMT] to watch the fireworks display out at sea, but within a few minutes, a tugboat [ferry] smashed into our vessel," Yuen Sui-see, operations director for the company, told reporters.
Television pictures showed the red and blue bow of the ferry pointing skywards, surrounded by rescue vessels as government helicopters with search lights circled overhead.
|Police said the cause of the accident was not yet known
"Over 100 people were sent to five hospitals during the incident, nine of them have sustained serious injuries or are in critical condition," the Fire Services Department [FSD] statement said.
The FSD said the rescue operation was hampered by darkness and "many obstacles onboard". Ng Kuen-chi, the acting deupty director of fire services, told local television that the rescue search was also made more difficult by the fact that the vessel was partly sunken.
Al Jazeera's Divya Gopalan, reporting form Hong Kong, said that there was "total chaos" on board the vessel as it began to sink.
"Families on the boat were separated, there was total chaos, many people were not wearing lifejackets. Many people couldn't swim. … People died both in the water and on the way to the hospital," she said.
Our correspondent reported that Hongkong Electric Company, which owned the ferry, is offering 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,973) as compensation to each family who lost a loved one.
On Tuesday, teams of men in white coats, green rubber gloves and yellow helmets carried corpses off a police launch in body bags. Children were among the dead, local media reported, and at one of the city's public mortuaries around 50 grieving relatives gathered.
Despite the many casualties, the rescue response was quick. Al Jazeera's Gopalan said "the fire services department and rescue workers reached the disaster site 18 minutes from when they got the distress call. That's incredibly quick. That's what Hong Kong is used to. They have a very efficient rescue system."
"Rescue action will continue overnight as FSD cannot rule out that there are still people inside the vessel or missing," the statement said.
"We thought we were going to die. Everyone was trapped inside"
The FSD said 28 boats, two helicopters and 20 ambulances were involved in the rescue operation.
Police said the cause of the accident was not yet known.
A male survivor, wrapped in a blanket on the shore, said: "Within 10 minutes, the ship had sunk. We had to wait at least 20 minutes before we were rescued."
Other survivors said the ship swiftly flooded, trapping many people underwater. Passengers had little time to put on life jackets and some had to break windows to swim to the surface.
"We thought we were going to die. Everyone was trapped inside," said another middle-aged woman.
The other passenger ferry, owned by Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry Holdings, made it safely to the pier on Lamma island with a badly damaged bow after the collision, though several of its passengers and crew were taken to hospital with injuries.
The accident occurred over a long holiday weekend in Hong Kong, which is celebrating the mid-autumn festival and China's National Day on October 1.
Thousands of Hong Kong residents live on outlying islands such as Lamma, which lies about three kilometres southwest of Hong Kong island.
Hong Kong is one of the world's busiest shipping channels, although serious accidents are rare. Investigations are continuing into the accident.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies