Passengers were too terrified to let go of the railings as stricken pleasure boat Lamma IV sank.
"I told them: 'If you keep holding on to it, you will definitely die. But if you let go, we will save you,'" marine police sergeant Lee Wai-him recalled yesterday.
"This made them brave enough to let go and I was able to pull them out of the wreck."
This was one of many tales of courage and fear that emerged as rescuers revealed the dramatic life and death struggles after the Lamma Island ferry tragedy.
Lee said many of the children were brave and did not cry despite the panic around them.
A four-year-old girl, who had an injured and swollen eye, did not shed a tear when he reached her.
"I did not see any children crying at all, but many were too tired trying to keep afloat," he said.
He was also touched when a little boy he rescued said to him: "Please save more people."
The bravery of children struggling to stay afloat, the unselfishness of men and survivors blowing rescue whistles in despair were among the tales of firemen and police who rushed to the rescue of 124 passengers and crew after the Lamma IV and a passenger ferry collided off Yung Shue Wan and sank in minutes on Monday night.
Diver Hui Ka-chun from the Fire Services Department was among the first group to arrive after the vessel went down stern first.
"I knew the situation would be serious but what I saw was beyond my expectations," he said. "Everyone was shouting 'Help! Help!' and the scene was chaotic."
He and his colleagues saw a handful of survivors floating near the wreck and helped them into the rescue boat.
The vessel moved closer to the wreck and Hui peered through a window.
"There were 40 to 50 people trapped in the cabin with water pouring in. Some of them were not wearing life jackets," he said.
Rescuers had to smash their way into the cabin to reach the frightened victims.
"After we had rescued most of them, I heard some people blowing on the whistles of their life jackets and I returned to the boat to search for them," he said.
Hui's colleague Wong Tsz-kiu was on the rescue boat hauling in passengers pulled from the Lamma IV cabin.
He could not hold back his tears when told that a little girl he saved was declared dead by medics later. "I did CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] on the little girl. I thought she could be saved," Wong said.
He was dragged under water while trying to save a couple who were too scared to let go of their seat.
"The man, his wife and child were holding tight to their seat but it suddenly gave way and all of us were pulled under water," Wong said.
"We all tried to save as many people as we could," he said.
At one point, a meter-long anchor weighing 100 kilograms fell and hit one of the marine police officers working on the deck. He suffered injuries to his hips and then he lost his balance and fell, injuring his kneecaps.
Lee was hit on the head by a ladder, but he and his colleague refused to go to hospital until all victims were rescued.
"Not only the adults and children were tired, we were tired too, but there were a few unselfish male passengers who helped with the rescue of the children, most of whom were not their own," Lee said.
Ruttonjee Hospital accident and emergency nurse specialist Harris Lam Kai-cheong said the two marine police officers were the last patients he treated that night.
Many of Lam's colleagues came back to work from leave. "One of them had worked for half a day and we asked him to leave as we had handled most of the patients," Lam said. "Then he returned with food and drinks he bought for us and continued working."
Three marine police officers and one fireman were injured during the rescue. They have all left hospital.