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Ferry collision off Hong Kong leaves at least 36 dead

Hong Kong Ferry Colli_Angu.jpg

Oct. 2, 2012: Rescuers check on a half submerged boat after it collided Monday night near Lamma Island, off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong Island. (AP)

A boat packed with revelers on a long holiday weekend collided with a ferry and sank off Hong Kong, killing at least 36 people and injuring dozens in the deadliest accident to strike the Chinese territory in years.

The boat was carrying utility company workers and their families to famed Victoria Harbour to watch a fireworks display in celebration of China's National Day and mid-autumn festival. The two vessels collided Monday night near Lamma Island off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong Island.

The government said 36 bodies had been recovered as of Tuesday morning and the search was made difficult by low visibility and obstacles on the boat. Details about the victims were not given, though local outlet RTHK reported some of the dead were children.

More than 100 people were rescued and sent to hospitals, and nine had serious or critical injuries, the government's statement said. At least one person appeared to be missing, according to government figures.

Such large-scale accidents are rare for Hong Kong, a semiautonomous enclave off mainland China that has one of Asia's most advanced infrastructures and economies with first-rate public services.

The tragedy is also the latest test for the new administration of Hong Kong's Beijing-installed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who rushed to the pier where rescue work was taking place.

Leung's July inauguration was greeted by protests, and opposition by students and their parents against the proposed teaching of China-influenced patriotic history forced his government to back off the plan last month.

"All of Hong Kong's emergency forces are focused here," Leung said earlier. "Wide-ranging rescue work is being carried out on in the sea, land and in the air." Leung said he didn't know what caused the collision but promised a thorough investigation.

After daybreak, the boat was half submerged with its bow pointing almost straight up. A barge was tied alongside it, apparently to stabilize the sunken boat and keep it from tipping further.

Hong Kong fire services had deployed seven boats, including one to support diving operations, and more than 200 rescue personnel, the government said. Four rescue boats and a team of divers also were dispatched from the mainland Chinese province of Guangdong just across the border, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

"There was a boat that came in close and crashed," said Yuen Sui-see, director of operations at Power Assets Holdings Ltd., which was using the vessel to take staff on the outing. "After the crash, the other boat continued away, it didn't stop." He denied the vessel was overloaded, saying it was carrying 121 passengers and three crew but had capacity for more than 200 passengers.

Local news reports said the boat was hit by a ferry operated by the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry company on a regularly scheduled service. RTHK said the ferry captain was afraid to stop in case it sank, too, and returned to port safely. Local TV later showed images of the ferry, with its bow chewed up and chunks missing.

Survivors said the boat started sinking rapidly after the collision. One woman told local television that she swallowed a lot of water as she swam back to shore. Another man said he didn't know where his children were. Neither gave their names.

Lamma is the third-biggest island in Hong Kong and near one of the coastal Chinese city's busiest shipping lanes. The island is home to about 6,000 people, including many of the former British colony's expatriate workers.