At least three of 17 people admitted to hospital were in a critical condition, officials said. Scores of others had to receive medical treatment. Police watched helplessly for several minutes, unable to reach the mostly teenage victims whom one officer said simply dropped from sight to be crushed underfoot in the chaos.
Many in the crowd, swigging champagne and beer, kept surging through the Lan Kwai Fong area, a warren of narrow alleys containing some of Hong Kong's trendiest bars and restaurants, unaware of the tragedy until it was too late.
'The crowd was very jocular and the people were enoying themselves. . . . Suddenly there was a rush and people were trampled underfoot,' said Chief Superintendent Justin Cunningham.
Mr Patten said the inquiry under a high court judge, Kemal Bokhary, should start early next week, as speed was essential to avoid similar chaos at the Lunar New Year, which has been marred by tragedies for the past two years.
Last February, 24 Vietnamese were burned alive during a riot at a boat people camp in the rural New Territories. Festivities for the 1990 Lunar New Year were also marred by a fatal boat accident as sightseers watched a fireworks display on crowded Hong Kong harbour. Since then strict harbour regulations have been imposed for the festival.
Residents who watched the raucous but initially harmless festivities on television awakened to shocking headlines and graphic photographs in their morning newspapers. 'It's unbelievable - waking up to this,' a man said.
Witnesses said thousands of revellers spilt out of bars into the narrow streets and rushed down steep D'Aguilar Street only to slip and tumble on cobblestones drenched with beer and party foam. One witness said it was impossible to distinguish between revellers' whoops and victims' agonised screams. 'When people started getting crushed, it was just noise, noise, noise,' said an American, Scott Anderson, who runs the Top Dog snack bar.
'There was no difference in the noise. The problem was just the sheer mass of people.' Mr Anderson said he and other shopkeepers tried to ease the crush outside by pulling people off the crammed street. 'A few minutes later there were bodies lying in the street,' he said. 'It was like a war zone. I've never seen a scene like that.'
The 13 men and seven women who died were mostly teen-agers and people in their twenties. They included three foreign men: Koji Niizeki, 27, from Japan; Jodu Fullerton, 18, from Canada, and Michael Frith, 15, from Britain. Frith was the son of a Royal Hong Kong Police Force district commander.
Once largely a celebration for young expatriates, new year's eve in Hong Kong has in recent years become an attraction for local Chinese youth.