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Inquiry Centers on Ferry Pilot in Fatal Crash

Oct 17, 2003 | AP

Federal investigators said Friday they have issued a subpoena to determine if the pilot at the helm of the Staten Island ferry that crashed was using prescription drugs. They also said the vessel was at full throttle as it hurtled into the pier, killing 10 people.

In comments that suggested the investigation was focusing now on human elements, National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Ellen Engleman said weather was not a factor and there were no signs of mechanical failure.

Authorities have been looking into whether Assistant Capt. Richard Smith's blood-pressure medication caused him to slump at the controls as the ship approached shore. Smith attempted suicide after the wreck and remains hospitalized.

Engleman said Smith tested negative for illegal drug and alcohol use, but officials now want additional blood and urine samples to see if he was taking any other medication.

"We have issued a subpoena to determine if there were prescription drugs involved," Engleman said.

The ferry was going at full throttle about 17 mph when it slammed into a concrete pier at the end of a routine run to Staten Island on Wednesday, Engleman said.

"It neither sped up or slowed down," she said. Some eyewitnesses had suggested the ferry increased its speed before the deadly crash.

The ferry's captain, who was scheduled to meet with investigators on Tuesday, tested negative for alcohol use, as did five other crew members, she said.

The ferry Andrew J. Barberi, carrying around 1,500 passengers from lower Manhattan to Staten Island, veered wildly off course Wednesday afternoon, crashing into a maintenance pier hundreds of feet from the slip where it normally docks. In addition to the 10 who died, 65 people were injured, including three who lost limbs.

Investigators confirmed that Smith also was at the helm of the Andrew J. Barberi when it crashed into the Staten Island dock in July 1995, injuring some passengers. That accident was blamed on a propeller failure, and Engleman said no negligence or misconduct was found.

In 1997, Smith was transferred off captain's duty on the Staten Island ferry after he refused to let an inspector interview him and inspect the captain's quarters, said Christopher Lynn, then the city's transportation commissioner. Spot inspections were being undertaken to look for overtime abuse and other problems.

Lynn said Friday that because of the clash, he transferred Smith to command a boat that ferried corpses to a potter's field.

"I drew a very negative imprint from the fact that he wouldn't let the inspector in," said Lynn, who first spoke to the New York Post. "When you have somebody that's carrying 6,000 people in a boat that cost $25 million, I took him off that."

Lynn, who left the commissioner's post in late 1997, said he was stunned to learn that Smith was at the controls of the crashed ferry. "I thought I had solved that problem," he said.

"I felt like someone punched me in the stomach when I saw that name," he said.

Smith, 55, was listed in critical but stable condition. Authorities said he bolted from the scene of the crash and twice attempted suicide at his home, slitting his wrists and shooting himself with a pellet gun. He spoke with police Wednesday but was not interviewed in depth, Engleman said. Investigators will talk to him when it is "medically prudent," she said Friday.

Investigators also were examining conflicting reports on the positions of other crew members.

Under city Department of Transportation procedures, the pilot and captain are typically both in the pilot house as the boat enters port. "If the policy was implemented at the time of the accident, we don't know," Engleman said earlier.

The NTSB, which is leading the probe, began interviewing deckhands and engineering crew members Thursday, as well as survivors of the crash and their families.

The possible role of prescription drugs emerged in comments Thursday by City Councilman Michael McMahon, who represents part of Staten Island, after a briefing with city officials. He said Smith collapsed at the controls and appeared to have lost consciousness because of "health problems and medication" reportedly for a blood pressure problem.

"By the time the other captain could get control of the ship, it was too late," McMahon said.

An attorney representing Smith, Alan Abramson, spoke with the pilot's wife Thursday and issued a statement saying the family hopes "people will not rush to judgment."

The hobbled ferry was moored next to the terminal where thousands of commuters boarded ships Thursday as service was restored. The ferries, with their free 25-minute cruises across New York Harbor, ordinarily carry 70,000 people daily between Staten Island and lower Manhattan.

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