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Captain of Staten Island Ferry Ordered To Explain Whereabouts Before Crash

Oct 20, 2003 | New York Daily News

The captain of the Staten Island ferry who allowed his boat to slam into a pier, killing 10 passengers, has a date with federal investigators.

Capt. Michael Gansas has been ordered to appear before a National Transportation Safety Board panel Tuesday and explain exactly what he was doing when the Andrew J. Barberi hit a dock at the St. George Terminal.

Investigators, who have begun gathering background information on the crew, already are checking Gansas' story that he was on the bridge when pilot Richard Smith passed out at the controls -- but could not stop the boat from crashing.

"We do not yet know all the circumstances on the bridge," said NTSB head Ellen Engleman. "We have received conflicting reports."

Gansas, 38, who is on medical leave, could not be reached for comment at his home in Hazlet, N.J. The skipper's attorney, Bill Bennett, declined to comment on what he called "an unfortunate accident."

Under city Department of Transportation rules, Gansas should have been ready to grab the controls if something happened to Smith. "If the policy…was implemented at the time of the accident, we don't know," Engleman said.

But city officials looking into New York's worst maritime disaster in decades -- a cataclysm that injured 64 people, including three who lost limbs -- told the Daily News earlier that Gansas was below decks and "definitely was not where he was supposed to be."

His testimony will become part of a 72-hour history leading up to the crash that NTSB investigators are compiling. The feds have all but ruled out the gusty weather and mechanical failure as causes of the crash.

Federal investigators also issued a subpoena for additional blood and urine samples from Smith to find out whether he was taking prescription medicine -- and whether the drugs figured in the disaster.

Gansas, Smith and the other crew members have tested negative for illegal drugs and alcohol.

Smith, 55, who tried to kill himself after the crash by slashing his wrists and shooting himself with a powerful pellet gun, remained in critical condition at St. Vincent's Medical Center on Staten Island. He has not been questioned by investigators.

After the 3,335-ton craft hit the dock at 3:20 p.m. Wednesday and impaled itself on the concrete pilings, Smith fled to his Staten Island home.

He told the paramedics who found him bleeding on a bathroom floor that he had high blood pressure and was on medication. But a source close to the investigation said yesterday there was no indication that Smith suffered from hypertension when he was recertified by the Coast Guard in 2000. Recertification must be done every five years and requires a physical.

Meanwhile, DOT spokesman Tom Cocola refuted a New York Post report that Smith had been reassigned to the Potter's Field run in 1997 after defying then-Commissioner Christopher Lynn. "There's nothing in Smith's personnel record to reflect this," Cocola said, adding that Lynn had disciplined a different ferry pilot.

Smith's lawyer, Alan Abramson, said his client had an "exemplary" record but that he has not been able to interview him about the disaster.

Engleman also denied another Post report that the ferry sped up just before it crashed into the dock. "It neither sped up or slowed down," she said.

The 310-foot vessel, which was carrying 1,500 passengers, was moving at its normal cruising speed of 17 to 19 mph when it crashed.

"Passengers have reported to us that there were no warnings, no whistles," Engleman said.

The Coast Guard towed the wounded boat to the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Saturday, where it could remain for a year.

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