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Ferry Probe Focuses On Top 2 Crewmen

Investigators looking at roles of pilot and captain in deadly crash

Oct 18, 2003 | Star-Ledger Staff

Federal investigators probing Wednesday's deadly Staten Island ferry crash have all but ruled out mechanical failure and the day's blustery weather as causes, leaving the focus squarely on the vessel's crew.

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a subpoena to take additional blood and urine samples from the ferry's pilot, Assistant Capt. Richard Smith, who apparently blacked out at the wheel in the moments before the 310-foot Andrew J. Barberi rammed a Staten Island pier, killing 10 and injuring more than 60.

While previous tests showed Smith had no illegal drugs or alcohol in his system, investigators want to determine whether he had been using prescription medication and, if so, whether it played a role in his collapse.

The 55-year-old pilot, who attempted suicide immediately after the crash, suffers from high blood pressure.

Investigators also have focused increasing attention on the ferry's captain, Michael Gansas, 38, of Hazlet. NTSB chairwoman Ellen G. Engleman yesterday said authorities do not yet know whether Gansas was in the forward pilot house with Smith, as required by the New York City Department of Transportation, or elsewhere on the 3,300-ton boat.

According to published reports, Gansas was in a second pilot house, at the Barberi's rear, when he noticed the vessel was off course and traveling too fast to dock. By the time he tried to navigate out of danger, it was too late.

"We don't know all the circumstances on the bridges," Engleman said. "We have received conflicting reports."

Gansas will be formally interviewed by the NTSB on Tuesday. Like Smith, he had no alcohol or illegal drugs in his system at the time of the crash, among the worst ferry disasters in the city's history.

Gansas, who has been on sick leave since the accident, could not be reached yesterday. His lawyer, Bill Bennett, would not comment on the investigation or the crash.

"Obviously this is a terrible tragedy," Bennett said. "Mr. Gansas' thoughts and prayers are with the families of all those affected by this unfortunate accident."

Investigators have been unable to question Smith, who remained in critical but stable condition last night at St. Vincent's Hospital-Staten Island. Engleman said Smith will be interviewed when it is "medically prudent." In the suicide attempt at his Staten Island home, Smith cut his wrists and shot himself in the chest with a high-powered pellet gun.

Scrutiny of the two captains has grown with the diminishing possibility of other causes.

Engleman yesterday said an inspection of the ferry's engines, controls, alarm systems and other equipment revealed no problems, though mechanical failure has not been officially ruled out.

The NTSB likewise has found that Wednesday's high winds, which gusted to 50 mph, likely played no role. Staten Island ferries routinely navigate under much worse conditions, Engleman said.

Based on a review of personnel records, the NTSB has concluded that Smith and Gansas were "well-rested and trained" prior to the accident, Engleman said.

Both men, officials say, have exemplary records.

Gansas, a U.S. Navy veteran, joined the ferry service in 1990 as a provisional deckhand, working his way up the ladder with regular grades of "outstanding" on his performance evaluations, according to biographical information provided by the city DOT.

In 1991, he received a commendation for rescuing a passenger who had jumped overboard.

Gansas moved to the Monmouth County community of Hazlet about two years ago with his wife and two young children, a boy and a girl, neighbors said.

Smith, an Air Force veteran, started working on Staten Island ferries in 1985, winning promotions from deckhand to assistant captain and, in 1996, to provisional captain. Rated "outstanding" on his evaluations, he has received two commendations, both for maintaining composure during mechanical failures, in 1990 and 1995, on the 22-year-old Barberi.

In the 1995 incident, a propeller failed to reverse, causing the Barberi to bump a pier at the St. George terminal, also the scene of Wednesday's crash. Several people were injured in the rough landing.

Part of Smith's record was in dispute yesterday. A former DOT commissioner, Christopher Lynn, said in an interview with the Associated Press that he had removed Smith from the ferry service in 1997 after Smith refused an interview with an inspector and barred the man from the captain's quarters. Lynn said he ordered Smith transferred to a vessel that carries corpses to a potter's field.

"I drew a very negative imprint from the fact that he wouldn't let the inspector in," Lynn said.

A DOT spokesman, Tom Cocola, sharply disputed Lynn's account, saying that while Smith sometimes handled the potter's field run, he did so only as a substitute on an "as-needed" basis.

"We emphatically deny these scurrilous accusations," Cocola said in a statement.

Smith remained a full captain until May of this year, when he requested a demotion to assistant captain. The DOT offered no detail on the reason for the request. But a friend and former co-worker of Smith, retired ferry Capt. Ted Costa, 79, said the move to a lower rank gave Smith more seniority, allowing him greater flexibility in choosing shifts, boats and crews.

Costa offered only praise for Smith, calling him a responsible, conscientious captain who never neglected his duties.

"I can't believe it's him," said Costa, who worked at the ferry service for 44 years. "No one in the crew will say anything bad about him. He was always in the right place at the right time."

If, as suspected, Smith did lose consciousness, investigators want to know why, but a conclusion might not be easy to reach. While published reports have differed on whether Smith took his blood pressure medication, several cardiologists yesterday said they found it unlikely that either scenario would cause someone to pass out.

"I see a big question mark here," said David M. Shindler, a cardiologist at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick.

Doctors said people who fail to take their medication could see their blood pressure rise, possibly causing a headache or chest pressure. "But it's usually not heralded by a blackout," said Marc Cohen, chief of cardiology at the Heart Hospital of New Jersey at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

Patients new to the medicine, meanwhile, or those taking too much of it could become light-headed or fatigued, doctors said. "But quite frankly, you don't pass out completely," Cohen said.

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