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At Least 10 Die In N.Y. Ferry Crash

Oct 15, 2003 | Washington Post

A commuter ferry bound from Manhattan slammed into a Staten Island pier Wednesday afternoon, killing at least 10 passengers and inflicting three dozen injuries, some of them critical.

Passengers interviewed on local news broadcasts said the 3 p.m. ferry never slowed as it neared the end of its five-mile run, which was routine except for unusually windy conditions. About 300 feet long and weighing well over 3,300 tons, the vessel struck the pier's immovable bulk at an estimated 20 mph with what witnesses described as the sound of crunching glass and rending steel.

Wooden pilings the girth of redwood trees sheared the metal skin off the ferry's hull, smashed through bulkheads and splintered planking. The heaviest casualties appeared to be among passengers seated in rows of plastic molded chairs on the lower deck.

Survivors said some of those on the upper deck, nearest the bow, saw the impact coming. They screamed and began to flee toward the rear and left of the ship, and witnesses said a few leaped into chilly New York Harbor.

Others were swept off the vessel in the collision seconds later, which continued for agonizing moments as the full length of the ferry's right side crushed against the pier. Divers pulled one body from the harbor by evening, and search efforts continued into the night.

"I at no time noticed the ferry downshift and slow down at all," passenger Luis Melendez told the local NY1 cable channel. "All of a sudden I hear them say, 'Let's run, this thing's going to hit.' I see the right side of the boat getting torn open, just like a can. Whoever was sitting on that side was either buried or sliced up, because there's no way they were able to survive that impact. I did see one man on the floor, he was screaming for help."

Emergency authorities said all crew members, including two captains, survived. A high-ranking police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one of the captains, who remained unnamed, fled the wreckage to his Staten Island home.

The official said the captain who was at the ship's controls shot himself twice in the chest with a pellet gun and slashed his left wrist. "He's in surgery right now," the official said in an interview last night. "One of the pellets may have penetrated the heart."

Emergency workers, armed with cutting torches, sent showers of sparks through the wrecked interior as they sliced through collapsed decking in a search for additional victims. Officials said they feared the death toll would grow. To prevent further collapse inside the ferry, emergency workers shored up sagging supports with wooden pilings scavenged from the pier.

About 8 p.m., reporters at the police perimeter around the scene saw emergency workers carrying bodies to a black van. The families of missing passengers gathered on Stuyvesant Place where prospective jurors normally wait to be empaneled for trials.

The ferry began its run from southern Manhattan amid winds that gusted more than 45 mph, according to the National Weather Service. High winds have sometimes led the New York City Transportation Department, which carries 70,000 passengers aboard the free ferries, to cancel some or all of the 104 scheduled trips each day. City authorities did not say whether they considered doing so Wednesday.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who rushed to the scene by helicopter from the sixth game of baseball's American League championship series at Yankee Stadium, cautioned against a "rush to judgment" about the cause. The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a "go team" from Washington to lead the investigation, and Bloomberg said it would take "days, weeks, months" to understand what happened.

By nightfall, police had erected barriers around the captain's home, and reporters were not permitted to approach his family.

"They will all go through drug testing, they will all go through alcohol testing," Bloomberg said, speaking of the crew. "They are all being interviewed right now." He added, "I would just caution you that what seems to be what happened usually turns out to be not what happened."

Lt. Brenda Roderig of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in New Haven, Conn., said the standard battery of drug tests includes cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines, opiates and PCP.

Robert Ford, a former ship's captain, will lead the NTSB investigation. Ford took two weeks to issue preliminary findings in a May 25 boiler room explosion aboard a cruise ship in Miami. A full report on marine accidents generally takes more than a year.

Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said the second captain took the helm immediately after impact. There was no damage below the waterline, and the ferry was not thought to be in danger of sinking.

Bloomberg said there was "no indication that this was anything other than a tragic accident."

Michael Fagen, an emergency physician at St. Vincent's Hospital and Medical Center, said in a telephone interview with NY1 that his patients, some of them in critical condition, had suffered massive trauma and hypothermia. Witnesses said some passengers lost limbs. There were 34 injured passengers admitted to two hospitals.

"There were numerous injuries like fractures and lacerations," said Fire Department spokeswoman Maria Lamberti. "There were a couple of people with amputations legs and arms." Other victims suffered spinal injuries.

The vessel, named the Andrew J. Barberi after a legendary football coach at Staten Island's Curtis High School, was also involved in the last ferry accident here in 1997, when a car plunged off the deck. Eleven years earlier, another ferry was the scene of a gruesome attack by a man wielding a sword, who killed two people and injured nine before a retired policeman subdued him. The most serious calamity on the Staten Island line came in 1871, when a boiler explosion killed more than 100 passengers.

Though used principally by workday commuters, the Staten Island Ferry is a worldwide tourist draw for its panoramic views of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the bridges and skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Until two years ago, the twin towers of the World Trade Center dominated that vista throughout the 25-minute ride.

An estimated 1,500 passengers boarded the 3 p.m. ferry Wednesday, not long before a rush hour commute during which the ships are often packed close to their 6,000 capacity.

Bloomberg urged anyone fearing for a missing family member to dial 311, the city's new non-emergency information line. Operators, he said, would connect callers to appropriate departments if they established a match with accident victims.

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