Customs officers die after collision with suspected smugglers

Image of vessel intercepted by Hong Kong customs. Credit: Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department

Three Hong Kong customs officers were killed when their boat capsized during a patrol on 21 January 2020, in waters near Hong Kong International Airport.

The victims, one woman and two men, who were trapped in the cabin, were conveyed unconscious to Tuen Mun Hospital and later died.

Hong Kong police said that the boat appeared to have capsized after hitting a hard object between 9 pm and 9:14 pm local time.

Although some media reported that the customs boat had collided with a suspected smugglers’ boat, there was no official confirmation.

In a media briefing at about 1:30 am on 22 January, the Fire Services Department said it had sent 72 firefighters and rescuers to the scene after receiving a report at 9:14 pm on 21 January.

The first group arrived 29 minutes after the crash and, within minutes, located the three customs officers who were trapped inside the cabin. There were two other customs officers who survived the accident and were sent to North Lantau Hospital.

“Our colleagues did not see any floating objects at the scene, so we don’t know the reason for the boat turning over,” the department’s marine and diving division commander Yiu Men-yeung said.

He said the customs officers were wearing life jackets.

Customs assistant commander Chan Tsz-tat said the vessel, which had been in use since 2016 and was last inspected in March 2019, was on an anti-smuggling patrol and left the Stonecutters Island station after 6pm on 21 January.

“We are pained by the tragic incident that led to three customs officers losing their lives, the customs department will provide all viable assistance to the families,” he said.

Amid heightened alerts due to an outbreak of African swine fever in Asia, Hong Kong Customs recently launched a series of operations near Sha Chau – to the south of the runway – to fight cross-border smuggling activities in which fishing boats and cargo vessels were used to ship frozen meat from Hong Kong into China.