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Feds To Call Grand Jury In S.I. Ferry Disaster

Oct 30, 2003 | New York Daily News

Brooklyn federal prosecutors announced a criminal probe yesterday into the Staten Island ferry disaster that killed 10 passengers and injured scores more.

Federal prosecutors are expected to convene a grand jury in coming weeks, even as the Staten Island district attorney's office and NYPD continue a separate investigation into the Oct. 15 Andrew J. Barberi tragedy.

"We have taken this action to fulfill the federal government's significant responsibility to protect the safety of the millions who travel on New York's waterways each year," said Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf.

Sources said the feds could charge Capt. Michael Gansas and his assistant captain, Richard Smith, under a century-old federal statute: misconduct or negligence of ship officers.

The obscure charge Title 18-1115 was leveled against officers after the General Slocum caught fire in the swirling waters off Hells Gate, killing more than 1,000 people in 1904. It was more recently used against the snakeheads who smuggled more than 300 Chinese immigrants aboard the Golden Venture, which ran aground off the Rockaways in 1993, killing 10 people.

The federal case will not deter the NYPD's probe, Commissioner Raymond Kelly said yesterday. "These are New York City citizens, residents, that died. So we are going forward with the investigation," he said.

"We've made plans to convene a grand jury and those plans remain unchanged," said Monica Brown, a spokesman for Staten Island District Attorney William Murphy.

Smith contends he passed out at the controls. He fled after the crash and attempted suicide. His lawyer has said he's not well enough to talk to investigators.

Gansas, who sources said was not in the pilot's house, as he should have been, at the time of the crash, also has not spoken to probers. His lawyer contends he is too traumatized to be grilled.

Relatives of ferry crash victims, who attended a memorial last night, praised the feds for stepping in.

"Anyway you can get answers, get these men to talk," said Debra Canini, 49, whose husband, Pio, was killed in the crash.

She was among 300 mourners gathered near the St. George Ferry Terminal. A ferry whistle blew as relatives tossed white roses into New York Harbor.

"We ask why the people of Staten Island are made to bear another burden of grief," said Mayor Bloomberg. "No investigation can answer that."

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