At least one person has died and two others are missing after a major fire at an oil tanker in Hong Kong waters on Tuesday, a disaster that has also sparked environmental concerns.
According to reports, a vessel caught fire at around 11:30 am in the seas surrounding Lamma Island, sending plumes of dark smoke billowing into the air and prompting a No. 3 alarm.
An eyewitness, a fisherman who happened to be in the nearby waters at that time, told the media that there was a big sound of explosion before heavy smoke was seen coming out of the vessel, followed by a great fire.
The blast was so strong that even people living in Mui Wo, a rural town on the eastern coast of Lantau Island, could hear it, with some of them seeing their windows shake and triggering fears of an earthquake, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
Alerted about the incident, rescue teams from the Fire Services Department, the Marine Police, and the Government Flying Service rushed to the scene to put out the fire and save the people stranded on board and at sea.
Although more than 20 crew members of the vessel were successfully rescued, some were not that lucky. At least one was found dead while four others were injured and sent to hospital.
While the fire was largely extinguished at around 4:30 pm, two of the crew members were reportedly still missing as of 3 pm on Wednesday.
A team of six officers from was sent by the Fire Services Department Wednesday morning to go on board the vessel to look for the two missing crew members, RTHK reported. The search on the water was also continuing.
Wong Wai-hong, deputy district commander of the marine port, said the vessel — a 17,000-ton ship named Aulac Fortune, registered in Vietnam — had 25 crew members all of whom were Vietnamese.
The tanker, measuring 144 meters long and 22.6 meters wide, set sail from Dongguan on Monday and was headed for Thailand.
It was believed to be undergoing refueling via a barge when it caught fire.
The Marine Department said there were no oil products in the tanker when the incident took place, adding that no leakage of dangerous goods or oil spill in the waters was found.
Environmentalists, however, are worried about atmospheric and marine pollution, given the massive dark clouds of smoke that were seen during the blaze.
As the authorities were certain that the vessel was not at risk of sinking, an on-board investigation into the cause of the fire is scheduled for Wednesday after the vessel is stabilized.
Vietnam’s consulate in Hong Kong has been contacted to provide assistance for the crew members.
Choi Leung-pei, vice chair of the Hong Kong Seamen’s Union, said the blast could have been triggered by sudden rise of temperature in the oil chamber, or due to some external factors such as someone smoking, where there was still oil gas remaining.
Lawmaker Steven Ho Chun-yin, who represents the functional constituency for agriculture and fisheries, revealed that some fishermen told him the waters could suffer pollution from the incident.
It is a worrisome prospect as the area is home to mariculture farms and nesting sites for green turtles.
Chan King-ming, director of the Environmental Science Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he is worried about the impact on the ecology in the area if there had been any leakage from the vessel.
He pointed out that many migratory birds as well as marine mammals pass through waters.
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