Reflecting on the Resonance of Disaster

My house is less than a mile away from the site where the 海泰 / Sea Smooth, a HKKF ferry I’ve likely ridden a hundred times, smashed in the Lamma IV. Or perhaps the Lamma IV smashed into the Sea Smooth. We don’t yet know because the story of what, exactly, happened is either unknown or isn’t being shared. The Lamma IV was an older ferry that Hong Kong Electric, which runs a power station on my island, uses to transport workers to and from our island. What we do know is that on Monday they were using it to take families out to Victoria Harbor to see the National Day fireworks.


Thirty-eight people died within my line-of-sight as I partied on a rooftop. Five of the dead were children. I was in a blow-up swimming pool with a cocktail in hand just before the collision. We were likely jamming with guitars, cellos, and a hand drum while they were stuck inside of a sinking metal box, using seats as stairs to try to get above the water on a boat that had swung 90 degrees in absolutely the wrong direction. Things were crashing on them. People were making decisions about whether to find and help their spouses, children, and friends or get to safety first. People were probably stepping on top of other people to get air. It was, I am almost certain, one of the worst ways to both die and survive. An unimaginable hell.

And I felt nothing. There was no disturbance in the Force. When the first helicopter came, I made some stupid comment about how great it would be to fly helicopters for a living and chided a friend for not supporting my position enthusiastically enough. I recall the moment that the frantic, sweeping helicopter search light found what it was looking for. Then boats starting showing up. I think it was a friend’s SMS that told me what had happened, then I got online to find out. The informational was all very wrong. A tug had crashed into a pleasure boat. The seriousness of the situation didn’t even occur on me until I saw the headlines the next morning and woke my wife and a houseguest up with some loud curses. People actually died in that accident. Twenty-five of them, at that count.

I think in the back of my head I really want to believe in something like a Jungian collective unconsciousness. I want to believe we’re just individual patches of a larger quilt. I want to believe that something inside me would turn on (or off) and I would know that now, at this moment, that the quilt had been torn and now is the time to stop having a good time and feel somber. But it never came. I just wanted to get closer the helicopter’s searchlight. The next day I regretted not being able to get anyone to come with me on a hike to the north end of the island once we figured out what was going on.

CNN asked me what it felt like living on an island, dependent on these ferries, and now seeing how horrific things can go. A friend asked what the vibe was like on Lamma the next day. Here’s the truth: I don’t feel much of anything and I think a lot of Lamma expats feel the same. We have a small community of a few thousand on the island. Had those 38 dead been Lammaites, probably 2/3s would have been “ferry phantoms”, as Kevin Voigt put it. Perhaps as many as half would be friends plus friends of friends who go to the same pubs, parties, and restaurants. It would have been absolutely devastating, a wound that would take years to heal. But none of them were and Lamma the next day carried on much as usual.

After getting out of the pool, and playing music with friends, I went down and took some photos that night. I went out the next day and took even more. I kept staring at this completely normal thing, a Lamma ferry, that I see almost every day that was now in a weird angle and partially submerged. I felt none of the ghosts of those 38 dead as I scrambled over familiar trails on a peninsula overlooking the crash site. I might have even mumbled “that’s it!” as they started moving the barges and I could finally photograph more of the Lamma IV wreck than just the rooftop.

The disconnect never left, even as the boat pulled up on a familiar beach and I got a closer look and better photos. I could see the gash. The wound. A nearby “ferry phantom”, on the beach taking photos with his iPhone, speculated with me unemotionally about how so many died, offering competing theories on how one out of three Lamma IV passengers didn’t make it out alive. “You know most Chinese can’t swim,” he said. His friend assumed most died on impact. I had a slightly more hellish version of too many people in what was suddenly too small a pool, their mere presence at the surface of the water inside the cabin part of terrible zero-sum game that kept someone else from breathing. Perhaps their own family.

The Lamma IV was just a disheveled boat to me. One that had a story but few personal emotions attached to it. Looking at it in my own photos, it still seems difficult to imagine 38 people dying on it. Which is the same thought I had on the roof. I think I even commented during the party that there’s almost no better place in the world to get in an accident like that, as I assumed everyone was being plucked out by our professional and highly trained rescue workers with some of the best and most modern tools available. And I had assumed that ferries were quite safe. It’s still difficult imagine one sinking in two minutes unless struck by a torpedo. There’s something fundamentally unreal about all of it, even while staring at the sunken vessel itself.

I contrast this with my reaction to Hurricane Katrina. I actually broke down in tears in a class I was teaching when I played a web clip of man who lost his wife in Hurricane Katrina, having not seen the video prior (this was the morning after the storm). I connected. I knew the place, I knew the people, I understood exactly what that man was going through as well as anyone else could. Earlier that morning I had  spoken to friends who went through the storm as storm chasers, who I had already been through the eye of a hurricane with once before, who through their tone of voice told me this was completely unlike Hurricane Frances. They had spent an entire night scared witless hiding in a shaking parking garage. The entire city of New Orleans stands as a monument in my mind to everything that happened there five years ago. But in Hong Kong I haven’t even plugged the antenna into our televison to get local broadcast TV inside the house. Even if we had it, there’s an unbreachable linguistic wall between the content and myself. I get my Hong Kong news from Twitter, international media outlets, and occasionally the very-paywalled SCMP. Everything second-hand, everything ever-so-slightly diluted. Detached.

I end with the thought that tragedy is constructed inside our social imaginations, either touching us through our social networks or through similarity. I feel cut off from the HK Electric power station crew, whom I’ve never socialized with because few live on the island with us. I also feel cut off from the larger Hong Kong Cantonese-speaking society. I think 90% of the population is able to experience the tragedy on a much more intimate level, as I experienced Katrina, even if their houses aren’t a ten minute walk from where the Lamma IV now rests. The interviews I’ve seen are in English, so they’re only with people who were aboard the Sea Smooth. They are people like me, but who mostly only got a bump on the head. I’ve not heard, with my own ears, the horrors of the people who were on the Lamma IV. I wouldn’t understand even if I did. The geographic and physical resonance of the reality isn’t enough – it means almost nothing without a social glue tying it all together. It’s what would have made that boat, just a metal shell to me now, glow with a somber sadness that the victims deserve.

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