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HK firm says ferry in tragedy passed inspection

HONG KONG -- The company that owns the ferry involved in one of Hong Kong's deadliest accidents in decades said Wednesday it passed an inspection just last month, though authorities have offered no explanation about how two boats collided on a clear night in one of the safest and most regulated waterways in Asia.

Police have arrested seven crew members from both boats, including the captains, on suspicion of operating the vessels unsafely but have not elaborated on their actions in Monday night's crash. Thirty-eight people on the second boat were killed, four of them children, and about 100 people on both vessels were taken to hospitals for injuries.

The Lamma IV is owned by a utility company and was taking about 120 of its workers and their families to watch fireworks in famed Victoria Harbor when it collided with the Sea Smooth and partially sank.

The ferry was damaged but made it to port. Salvage crews raised the half-submerged Lamma IV using three crane barges and later towed it the island's shoreline. Heavy damage was visible, with part of the compartment at the stern torn away and railings bent and twisted.

The government-required inspection of the Sea Smooth last month indicated no problems, said Nelson Ng, general manager of Hong Kong and Kowloon (Ferry) Holdings said. He did not give further details and could not say what the ferry did after the collision because the company has not been able to talk to the captain, who is one of the crew arrested but remains in the hospital.

Police have arrested four crew members from the Sea Smooth and three from the Lamma IV. Police Commissioner Tsang Wai-hung said both crews are suspected of having not "exercised the care required of them by law," but he did not elaborate.

The crash was Hong Kong's deadliest accident in more than 15 years and its worst maritime accident in more than 40. Large-scale accidents are rare in a semiautonomous enclave off mainland China that has one of Asia's most advanced infrastructures and economies with first-rate public services.

Some relatives of the dead went to the scene off Hong Kong island's southwestern coast to toss spirit money in honor of the victims on Tuesday, while others waited at the morgue for news about loved ones.

Survivors told local media the Lamma IV started sinking rapidly after the 8:23 p.m. collision. One woman said she swallowed a lot of water as she swam back to shore. A man said he had been on board with his children and didn't know where they were.

Yuen Sui-see, the director of operations of Power Assets Holdings, which owns the boat's owner, Hong Kong Electric, said the Lamma IV was carrying 121 passengers and three crew members, well below its capacity of more than 200.

Power Assets Holdings officials said emergency payments of 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,800) would be provided to the family of each person killed.

The companies are part of the business empre of Li Ka-shing, Asia's richest man. He visited a hospital Tuesday and told reporters he felt sorry. "I don't want to say too much. I just know that many people have passed away," he said on Cable TV Hong Kong.

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Follow Kelvin Chan on Twitter at twitter.com/chanman