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Guilty Plea Is Expected In S.I. Ferry Crash

Sources say pilot will take blame in accident that killed 11; captain and others also will face charges

Aug 4, 2004 | Newsday

The pilot at the helm of the Staten Island ferry that crashed, killing 11 passengers and wounding 73 others, is expected to plead guilty to federal charges today.

Law enforcement sources told Newsday an indictment to be unsealed includes 11 counts of manslaughter and names Assistant Capt. Richard Smith as a defendant. Capt. Michael Gansas and other ferry personnel are also among the defendants, sources told The Associated Press.

The case against Smith, the pilot, who said he blacked out moments before the Oct. 15 accident, is expected to center on the medication Smith was taking. Sources said Smith was taking tramadol, a powerful prescription pain reliever that in combination with other medications made him susceptible to fainting.

It was not clear last night what charges specific defendants will face. Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn, who are to announce the indictment, had no comment yesterday.

The Brooklyn federal court calendar indicates Smith is to enter a guilty plea before Chief Judge Edward Korman at 10 a.m., but does not specify the charge.

Smith's lawyer, also had no comment. An attorney for Gansas, 38, who was fired for refusing to cooperate with authorities investigating the crash, did not respond to requests for comment.

The crash of the Andrew J. Barberi opened a window into a system rife with shoddy procedures, poor accountability and patronage. A Newsday probe based largely on accounts crew members gave investigators found that the crash likely resulted from a fatal mix of medication and lax procedures.

Smith, 55, who fled to his nearby home after the accident and tried to kill himself, was not required to tell ferry officials about the medication he was taking.

In addition to tramadol, Smith was taking heart or blood pressure medication and an anti-depressant, sources said. Such a combination could have made him susceptible to fainting or seizure, studies have shown.

News of a pending indictment brought relief to at least one victim's family.

"It's about time," said Marie Fucile, whose 35-year-old son, Joseph Bagarozza, was killed as he rushed home from his job as a commodities broker to watch a Yankees playoff game.

"I just want justice. I just want them, both of them - Gansas and Smith - punished for what they did," she said.

Meanwhile, the city has filed a special action in federal court in Brooklyn seeking to limit its financial exposure in the face of hundreds of claims made by people injured in the crash.

In April, Korman put a 90-day hold on pretrial discovery in the city's action after federal prosecutors voiced concern the case might interfere with the criminal probe. That stay was later extended through early this month. Federal prosecutors have until Friday to file for another extension.

"We are anxious to find out the results of the U.S. attorney's investigation, which will help us in the prosecution of the civil action," said Anthony Bisignano, an attorney for many of the injured passengers.

"Victims of this accident have been waiting with bated breath for answers as to why the accident happened. We believe it is beyond the actions of the crew members. We believe it extends up the chain to management," Bisignano said.

Federal investigators are using a special maritime homicide statute as the basis of the probe. The last time the statute was used in a major case was to secure convictions against some of the smugglers and organizers involved in the voyage of the Golden Venture, the smuggling ship which ran aground off Jacob Riis Park in June 1993, killing at least six passengers.

Faced with legal claims totaling more than $3 billion, the city in December filed a special action under the maritime law aimed at limiting its liability to about $14.4 million. That amount is based on the value of the repaired Barberi, which is now back in service, plus a special tonnage assessment.

Any indictments and convictions that implicate the management of the ferry system with negligence could undermine the city's ability to limit its financial exposure for deaths and injuries stemming from the accident, according to maritime experts.

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