A crewman was killed, seven injured and two are still missing after an oil tanker caught fire off the coast of Lamma Island in Hong Kong on Tuesday.
Three explosions were reported during the fire, with residents from as far away as Mui Wo and Discovery Bay on Lantau Island saying they heard loud bangs and saw windows shaking.
Authorities said the blaze, which began at around 11.30am and was finally put out at 4.30pm, is believed to have started when the Aulac Fortune, a Vietnamese-registered vessel, was in the process of being refuelled by an oil barge.
The 144-metre (472-foot) tanker, which has a tonnage of 11,290, was on its way to Thailand after unloading oil cargo in Dongguan, Guangdong province, but stopped off one nautical mile south of Lamma Island for the refuel. There was no oil cargo on the tanker at the time of the fire.
Yiu Men-yeung, the Fire Services Department’s division commander for marine and diving, said on Tuesday evening the explosions and fire broke out on the tanker’s deck when the crew were connecting hosepipes to transport fuel from a nearby oil barge.
“They hadn’t started the refuel when the crew heard three explosions,” Yiu said, adding that three fuel tanks on the oil barge were also damaged.
Though the oil tanker was tilted 30 degrees, Yiu said there was no risk of its sinking or of an oil leak.
“If there is a leak, the Marine Department officials stationed on site will make an enclosure immediately,” Yiu said, adding they would study ways to stabilise the vessel to allow investigators to board the ship and look into the cause of the fire.
Three helicopters were sent to the scene in search of the missing sailors, while four fire services and more than 10 marine police vessels were also deployed. It took 140 firefighters and medical staff five hours to extinguish the fire, which was upgraded to a No 3 alarm at around 1.30pm.
Emergency personnel rescued 23 sailors, who had either fallen or jumped into the sea to escape the blaze. One crew member died while seven others who were injured in the explosion were taken to Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam, Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung and Ruttonjee Hospital in Wan Chai for treatment.
One sailor is in serious condition with burns, and another, a 46-year-old Singaporean man, had shoulder wounds. They and two other crewmen remained in hospital while the remaining three were treated and discharged on Tuesday.
Officials said 25 crew members had been on board the tanker, while one of the injured had been part of the four-member Singaporean crew on the oil barge.
Wong Wai-hong, deputy district commander of marine port, said the dead crewman’s cause of death had yet to be determined, but he was found with burns, wounds to his head and broken limbs.
A police source said a marine police regional crime unit would investigate if negligence had led to the fire. The unit would pursue all possible leads, including whether the fuel hosepipe handling procedure went wrong and whether anyone was smoking at the time of the incident, according to the source.
He said it was possible that the two missing Vietnamese crewmen were thrown off the oil tanker by the force of the explosions or that they were unable to escape and were killed on board.
If the two were trapped on the vessel, it would be difficult to find their remains because the blaze lasted several hours, he said.
The Marine Department and the local agency of the oil tanker would discuss the salvage plan.
At the fire’s height, pictures showed large clouds of black smoke billowing out of the tanker, which has a huge hole in its bow and is listing heavily to starboard.
Yip Tsz Leung, deputy director of the CY Tung International Centre for Maritime Studies, said the area was a common spot for ships to stop offshore to take on fuel, a process he said was “quite a dangerous moment”.
One of the sailors who was sent to hospital said the incident occurred while he was resting.
“I was sleeping, I don’t know what happened,” he said, adding that he felt OK and wanted to know details about his colleague.
Vietnamese consul Nguyen Van Phong arrived at Ruttonjee Hospital at 3.30pm to visit the injured.
The Aulac Fortune had unloaded petrol it was carrying in Dongguan on Sunday and arrived in Hong Kong at 3am on Tuesday.
“I thought it was an earthquake when the windows started to shake,” said Mui Wo resident Rhea Nee, 42, who heard a loud boom at the time of the incident.
“We usually have strong winds … but when I looked outside, the trees were perfectly still.”
Some shaken residents left their homes and gathered outside.
“I was waiting for the tremors and they didn’t come,” Nee said. “I ran out barefoot as I was folding my kids’ clothes. I ended up outside holding a stack of clothes.
“The windows shook violently. Like when there is a [typhoon signal No 10].”
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei
More from South China Morning Post: