CCTV footage has emerged of the moment a suspicious fire broke out and ripped through a dock and a boat at the Nam Sang Wai wetland in early April, following a spate of suspected arson attacks targeted at the conservation area in Yuen Long, New Territories.
This is despite earlier media reports quoting police saying CCTV cameras failed to record the incident due to “insufficient storage.”
Nam Sang Wai is an important stopover site for migratory birds and a popular tourist spot in Hong Kong, but it is also at the centre of a longstanding land dispute between land developers and environmentalists.
The footage, obtained by FactWire, shows a rowing boat moored at the Nam Sang Wai ferry pier, located on the southern edge of Nam Sang Wai, going up in flames around 3am on 2 April.
The fire quickly escalates as it lights up the sky over the Shan Pui River. Burning objects, believed to be debris and flammable liquids, can be seen floating down the stream.
Dr Fung Ying-sing, a retired professor of chemistry at the University of Hong Kong, said it was difficult to determine what substances the liquids were, but they could be “kerosene, petroleum or petrol, which are all lighter than water.”
Around 4:30am, whilst the boat is still ablaze, a man emerges from Shan Pui Chung Hau Tsuen, a village on the other side of the river. He stands and watches the fire for about a minute before turning back shortly after.
Another man also appears on the same shore about an hour later. He appears to be talking on the phone before leaving about three minutes later.
The blaze burned through the early hours of the morning and was only reported to the police at 6:21am by Mr Tam, who runs the ferry service.
His boat operator, who first arrived at 6am, can be seen scurrying to the burning dock and pouring buckets of water onto the fire.
Firefighters arrived on the scene around 6:30am and quickly put out the blaze. The dock was severely damaged and the boat burnt down to its hull.
The ferry takes passengers across the Shan Pui River between the Nam Sang Wai wetland to the north and Yuen Long town centre to the south.
Tam, who suspected the arsonist came from the north, said: “The river is about three to four feet deep and difficult to cross barefoot. You will leave footprints in the mud even if you try.”
The CCTV footage was captured by a camera installed at a nearby hut. It is pointed at an adjacent dock a few metres away from the burnt one, but the bright glow of the fire and thick smoke are still visible in the dark.
Three other surveillance cameras installed at the same location were also not pointing directly at the charred dock and boat.
The timestamps on the footage were inaccurate. Factwire made corrections according to the time when the boat operator called Tam, and when Tam called the police, which were both captured on camera.
Following the fire, a police source was quoted by several news media including Ming Pao, HK01 and Now TV as saying that the cameras did not record the incident due to insufficient storage.
The ferry owner also corroborated the reports, telling FactWire that he heard the same claim from police.
The Yuen Long district crime squad, which is handling the case as an arson investigation, said police had taken away the CCTV footage but had yet to make any arrest.
The police spokesperson did not answer whether the fire was recorded on camera.
The incident was the fourth fire in Nam Sang Wai in three weeks. Three back-to-back fires broke out in the conservation area between 12 to 14 March, leaving behind about 14 hectares of scorched reed beds, fishponds and trees.
The protected area, often dubbed the “backyard of Hong Kong,” has fallen victim to multiple “strange” fires since 2010. Environmentalists and politicians, including Democratic Party lawmaker Roy Kwong Chung-yu, have questioned if they were an intentional act to lower the ecological value of the site, which makes it easier for development plans to be passed by the Town Planning Board.