Police officers on a small boat secure the area around a half submerged boat after Monday night's collision near Lamma Island, off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong Island. The boat packed with revelers on a long holiday weekend collided with a ferry and sank, killing at least 36 people and injuring dozens, authorities said. Image Credit: AP

Hong Kong: Six crew from two passenger boats that collided killing 37 people in Hong Kong’s worst maritime accident in decades have been arrested, the territory’s security chief said on Tuesday.

“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.

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.

Hong Kong chief Leung Chun-ying told the same press conference that the toll from the collision had risen by one to 37, with more than 100 injured.

More than 120 passengers and crew were on the Hong Kong Electric company’s vessel to watch the huge National Day fireworks display in Victoria Harbour on Monday evening when it collided with the ferry.

Scores of people were thrown into the choppy water and the company vessel sank within minutes, leaving only its bow protruding from the waves.

Survivors were taken by boat to Hong Kong island, some three kilometres to the east, where a fleet of ambulances whisked them to hospital.

“There was not enough time to put on a lifejacket, no time to fasten it. We tried to hold onto something above but we had no luck and we slipped,” one emotional woman huddled in an emergency blanket told reporters.

Another survivor, clearly overwhelmed, said he had yet to hear any news of his children.

“My two children are missing and I don’t know where they are,” he said.

It was believed to be the deadliest maritime accident in the territory since 1971, when 88 people were killed when a Hong Kong-Macau ferry sank during a typhoon.

Lamma resident Clare Kirkman, who was returning home from Hong Kong aboard the regular ferry involved in the crash, described scenes of panic and confusion as the craft started to take on water.

“People at the front started screaming and saying there was water coming in, and the boat was tilting to the side,” the 43-year-old Briton told AFP.

“Nobody had a clue what we had hit. There was complete panic. Nobody explained anything... The crew was terrible, useless.”

Twenty eight people were certified dead at the scene and eight others were pronounced dead on arrival at various hospitals, the government said in a statement. More than 100 people were injured, it added.

All of the dead and most of the injured were passengers or crew of the Hong Kong Electric vessel, which company officials said was packed with staff and their families.

Rescue teams in boats and helicopters spent the night scouring the sea around the site of the accident for bodies or signs of survivors, while dive teams entered the sunken boat.

“The low visibility and many obstacles on board... made it difficult for rescue,” the FSD said.

Hong Kong chief Leung Chun-ying demanded an investigation, amid claims from angry Lamma residents that too many ferries had been scheduled during the holiday period, and that a pause during the fireworks had not been properly communicated.

“We must understand the reason for this incident,” Leung said after visiting a hospital where a number of those hurt had been taken.

The National Day holiday brought thousands of extra visitors to Lamma island, the third-largest island in the southern Chinese territory, with a population of only around 5,000 people.