Photographers' Blog

Hong Kong’s National Day ferry disaster

October 5, 2012

By Tyrone Siu

When the National Day fireworks ended in enthusiastic applause, most photographers – especially those who were functioning on an empty stomach like me – thought we could finally call it a night. After all, we had witnessed all the hustle and bustle since early in the day at the flag-raising ceremony. It was, we thought, perhaps enough sensation for a single day.

I was about to enjoy a nice hotpot dinner with other battered journalists after filing my fireworks pictures, when a reporter on site mentioned a brief report online that ruined the plan.

It said that two ferries had collided off Hong Kong’s Lamma Island but did not mention any injuries, but a hunch told me it could turn out to be a particularly nasty disaster. A minute later, I was carrying my clumsy tripod to evade the happy festival-goers and run past the police’s quarantine line to search for a taxi.

SLIDESHOW: DEADLY FERRY COLLISION

My watch told me half an hour had passed since the crush when the taxi was driving at full speed – heading to somewhere that I needed to decide soon. I told myself the decision had to be made promptly and I knew a wrong judgment call would cost me the opportunity to record the incident.

In a frenzy, I made a dozen calls to try to figure out the number of injuries, where the passengers were taken to be treated, the location of the collision site and what damage there was to the ferries, praying that the information could led me to the best vantage point.

When the taxi driver left me on a pier in Aberdeen, I waved to every single boat that sailed past me until one tiny boat stopped. I explained to the skipper the reason I had to approach a collision site and hoped he would understand the meaning behind our job or accept a cash payment for the trip. For either one or both reasons, he agreed to sail me to the crash site.

A few reporters soon arrived to join me to squeeze into my tiny boat. We instructed the boat to sail towards a tiny light spot at the other end of the dark sea, until we reached close enough. We were shocked by what we saw.

A creepy triangle was seen emerging from the middle of the dark sea. We soon realized it was the remains of a large vessel with most of its parts swallowed by the water. Everyone who’s watched Titanic would immediately recognize the similarity – except in reality it was much more eerie. The site was surrounded by complete and endless darkness. Rescue boats and helicopters sent off weak light towards the wreck, enough to show that the vessel was standing on its stern beneath the waves – but hardly adequate for our cameras’ to function well.

While I was preoccupied adjusting my shutter speed and aperture, a fellow photojournalist started to throw up intensely right next to me. I did not blame him. Our tiny boat was giving us a particular bumpy voyage. It was where we spent the next few hours capturing the scene, editing our image and sending our efforts back to the office – alongside our seasickness.

It was hard to image that an hour earlier I was surrounded by ten of thousands of merry faces cheering for the annual fireworks – and whose joy should originally have been shared by these ill- fate passengers aboard this now partially sub-emerged Lamma IV.

After more than an hour struggling with tide, the poor boat skipper finally announced at midnight that he had had enough, and retreated back to the pier. None of us were in good shape to object. I stayed with the wounded on shore until 3am and went home for a nap.

Mixed with exhaustion and emotion, I fell fast asleep that night with the ghostly ship in my dreams. I woke up, but the nightmare shared by the whole city did not go away. The death toll hit 37 when I returned to the crash site again at 7am. And later, 38. I was overpowered by emotion when the 38th was body was recovered.

No-one seems to be able to recover from the National Day disaster anytime soon.

May all those who lost their lives in the incident rest in peace.

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