Ferry crash dents Hong Kong safety record

The death of 38 passengers has shocked the city as it rarely sees major calamities.

I first found out about the ferry crash on a news ticker running across the bottom of one the local channels.

It said: “Two boats collided, rescue operation underway, dozens rescued.”

Having grown up in Hong Kong, and taking the territory’s safety record and efficiency for granted, I figured they’ll all be safe and on land soon – end of story.

I had good reason to think that because the last time there was a major maritime accident was back in 1971.

And the previous incident with mass casualty was in 1996. That was when around 40 people died in a fire.

So it came with great surprise to me – and it seems most of Hong Kong – that the death toll has come close to that.

Most people here can identify with the victims. It could have been one of us on that boat. Many big companies have boats that they let their employees use on occasion.

As for the passenger ferry service, for many Hong Kongers, taking the inter-island ferry is part of their daily commute.

As it turns out, the vessel that was hit was owned by Hong Kong Electric Company. The utility firm had held a lottery for the staff.

Anyone who won would be able to bring their family and friends on a cruise to see the fireworks for the National Day. I’d imagine any disappointment the losers felt must by now have turned to gratitude.

This boat accident is being taken very seriously in Hong Kong, although the same can’t be said for Hong Kong’s neighbour.

On the mainland, a few dozen casualties would garner very little attention, maybe a couple of inches of newspaper column. Had the accident happened in South East Asia or South Asia, it would largely be ignored by the rest of the world.

In contrast, the collision dominated front pages nationally, and made headlines in some international papers too.

It was the top story for most international news stations for hours, while the local news channels rolled on the rescue mission non-stop.

But there was one station that hadn’t picked up the story even a few hours after the accident. That was the Chinese state 24-Hour news channel CCTV.

One could speculate it was because it wasn’t a big enough story for China – Hong Kong is part of China – and transport accidents happen all the time in Chinese provinces.

Or maybe the news station just didn’t want to mar their celebratory National Day coverage with a sad story.

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