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Ferry Pilot Investigated After Possibly Falling Unconscious

Oct 16, 2003 | AP Divers searched for an 11th person missing and presumed dead Thursday as a probe into the horrific crash of a Staten Island ferry focused on whether its pilot fell unconscious while crossing New York Harbor.

In addition to 10 confirmed deaths, a Staten Island woman was presumed dead on the morning after the city's worst mass transit accident in at least a generation, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.

Police divers were hunting for the woman's body in the water near the ferry docks off Staten Island, Kelly said.

In addition, 42 people were injured.

Earlier, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had said three people were missing. Authorities said at late morning that they were still unsure whether the two others had been on the boat.

Witnesses said the ferry, crossing the windswept New York Harbor from lower Manhattan, never appeared to slow down as it approached Staten Island on Wednesday afternoon. The boat struck a maintenance pier hundreds of feet from the slips where the ferries normally dock.

The pilot who officials said might have failed to take needed medication quickly bolted from the scene, went home and attempted suicide, a law enforcement source told The Associated Press. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said pilot Richard Smith slit his wrists and shot himself with a pellet gun.

Smith, 55, was in critical condition and under police guard Thursday morning at St. Vincent's Hospital. Twenty-two victims including at least one amputee also were taken there.

A co-worker told authorities the pilot had been asleep, slumped over the controls, the source said.

But Staten Island councilman Michael McMahon said he was told at a briefing Thursday that Smith may have lost consciousness because of "health problems and medication.”

"By the time the other captain could get control of the ship, it was too late," McMahon said. He said the officials were looking into whether he had failed to take blood pressure medication.

Asked about reports that the pilot had fallen asleep or passed out at the wheel, National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Ellen Engleman said Thursday the agency has "a lot of conflicting reports as far as that. We don't want to pass on stories or rumors.”

After the wreck, the ferry was immediately backed up and moved to one of the passenger slips, where rescue crews began work.

"The scene was total chaos," said passenger Frank Corchado, 29, of Staten Island, recounting 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 crew was to be interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol, as is routine after major transportation accidents. The crew members referred investigators to union lawyers.

Smith was being represented by an attorney, said police, who obtained a sample of his blood for testing. Telephone messages left at his home were not returned.

Investigators said Thursday morning they had gotten conflicting reports on where the crew members were when the boat crashed. The pilot and captain are typically both in the pilot house as the boat enters port, although that is not a Coast Guard requirement.

A source close to the probe said the captain told investigators that Smith "slumped forward" on the controls in a way that could have made the boat accelerate toward the pier.

City Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall said Smith has been an employee for 15 years. "There's nothing in his record that we have seen so far that would indicate a problem," she said.

Smith gave initial comments to police but has not been interviewed in depth, Engleman said Thursday.

The 310-foot craft was carrying an estimated 1,500 people, 36 of whom were treated at the scene or immediately taken to hospitals. Six others walked away injured and went to hospitals later.

Witnesses said some passengers jumped into the 62-degree water and others ran as the pier chewed up the side of the boat.

The victims were in window seats on the front right side of the ferry, named the Andrew J. Barberi. Some of the injured were pulled from the rubble by rescue workers; one of the dead was found in the water off Staten Island.

Evan Robinson, a musician waiting for a ferry on Staten Island, said he watched as the craft suddenly veered crazily. Two other witnesses said the ferry appeared to speed up when it should have been slowing down for docking.

"I looked on in disbelief," Robinson said. "I said, `Oh, my God, he's going to crash!"'

"The ferry was coming too fast," said witness William Gonzalez, who lives nearby. "They had no control to stop the boat.”

At Staten Island University Hospital, two victims with amputations were among those brought in from the ferry, said spokeswoman Arleen Ryback. Others were suffering from back and spinal injuries; one victim reported chest pains and one had hypothermia.

Ferry service was immediately shut down, forcing thousands of evening rush hour commuters to head for buses and taxis. Service resumed Thursday morning, and the mayor said it was operating normally.

Engleman said the NTSB investigation could take a year. The agency will investigate human factors, including crew member activities in the preceding 72 hours; engineering factors; deck operations; and weather conditions, she said.

Winds were gusting to 40 mph, but Weinshall played down that as a possible factor, saying ferries operate in worse weather.

Bloomberg was at the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox playoff game when he heard the news and rushed to Staten Island.

"People who were on the way home, all of a sudden, taken from us," he said after touring the splintered wood, twisted steel and shattered glass aboard the ferry.

The ferry is among the city's most beloved institutions, providing free rides and a spectacular view of New York Harbor. The fleet of seven boats carry 70,000 commuters per day between Staten Island and lower Manhattan.

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