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Ferry Accident Probe Focuses On Pilot

Oct 16, 2003 | Philadelphia Inquirer

Federal officials investigating the Staten Island Ferry accident that killed 10 people focused Thursday on the boat's 55-year-old pilot, who may have blacked out as the ferry sped toward the dock.

Officials believe Assistant Capt. Richard J. Smith passed out Wednesday at the controls of the Andrew J. Barberi, perhaps because he failed to take his blood pressure medication, New York City Councilman Michael McMahon said after city emergency and transportation officials briefed him.

"The assistant captain at the controls collapsed," McMahon said. "By the time the other captain could get control of the ship, it was too late."

The 3 p.m. ferry, with about 1,500 aboard, plowed into a concrete maintenance pier about 400 feet from the nearest ferry slip on Staten Island after its run from Manhattan. The crash, in choppy waters, tore a giant gash in the side of the boat and sent passengers flying. More than 60 people were injured.

Smith fled the vessel, forgetting his keys, and broke into his home. He barricaded himself in a bathroom, slit his wrists and shot himself with a pellet gun. He was in critical condition Thursday at St. Vincent's Hospital, where many of the victims also were taken.

The Associated Press reported that the captain told investigators Smith "slumped forward" on the controls in a way that could have made the boat accelerate toward the pier. Many passengers said the boat seemed to be going excessively fast as it approached the pier.

Ellen Engleman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that is leading the investigation, would not answer questions about that account.

"I don't want to comment on any stories or second-hand information that may be out there," she said. She did say that the NTSB was looking into whether the boat's crew had violated New York Department of Transportation procedures that call for two crew members to be on the bridge during docking.

"It's hard to believe that someone who was right there could not gain control of the ship," she said.

Smith's lawyer, Alan Abramson, released a brief statement Thursday after meeting with the pilot's family.

"The family and all concerned hope that people will not rush to judgment," said Abramson, who has yet to meet with his client. "Their prayers go out to all the victims."

During a news conference not far from the accident site, Engleman said the NTSB is reviewing tests of the crew for alcohol and drug use. Such testing is standard in such accidents. The NTSB has not yet been able to interview Smith, but Engleman said she is optimistic that will happen, based on conversations with his lawyer. Investigators started interviewing the Barberi's deck hands Thursday afternoon.

The investigation may take up to a year.

"We're going to work very hard and deliberately to find out what happened and why and to ensure that it does not occur in the future," Engleman said at the morning news conference with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Officials confirmed that Smith was at the helm of the Barberi in 1995 when the vessel crashed into the Staten Island dock. The accident was blamed on a mechanical problem after the propeller failed to switch into reverse. No fatalities were reported, although there were a number of injuries.

Thursday, divers continued to search for the bodies of possible victims off Staten Island. One woman, feared to have died in the crash, turned up safe at a friend's house, police said.

Passengers who escaped described a crash that tore a hole in the side of the boat as if it were an aluminum can, sent bodies flying and ripped off legs.

"The scene was total chaos," passenger Frank Corchado, 29, of Staten Island, told The Associated Press. He recounted horrific sights: a decapitated man, a legless woman, a fellow passenger bleeding from his eyes.

"There was a lady without legs, right in the middle of the boat," he said. "She was screaming. You ever see anything like that?" The dead, one woman and nine men, ranged from age 25 to 52, police said.

The Barberi, named for a high-school football coach, sat moored at the Staten Island terminal Thursday, its damage covered by a bright blue tarpaulin. The bright-orange Staten Island ferries are a beloved New York institution, carrying 70,000 people daily between St. George terminal on Staten Island and Whitehall Street in Manhattan. Commuters and tourists alike love the ride for its sweeping views of the Statue of Liberty and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Commuters on Thursday said they were perhaps a little more on guard than usual but would continue to take the ferry with confidence. New York city officials said ridership remained at normal levels Thursday. Barry Grubert, who lives in Manhattan and works on Staten Island, said he looks forward to his ride.

"There's something very relaxing about the water," during the approach to Staten Island yesterday morning. "I have the option to drive as well, but I love to take the ferry."

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