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Investigators Probe Role of Pilot's Medicine In Crash

Oct 18, 2003 | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Federal investigators have issued a subpoena to find out if the pilot of a ferry that crashed into a pier and killed 10 people was under the influence of prescription drugs.

The pilot, Richard Smith, was hospitalized in critical but stable condition Friday after an apparent suicide attempt shortly after the incident.

Ellen Engleman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that toxicology tests on Smith's blood and urine taken in the hospital were negative for alcohol and illegal drugs. He won't be interviewed until his medical condition improves, she said.

Investigators were also examining Smith's medical records to determine if a health condition, such as high blood pressure, could have caused him to faint or collapse.

Engleman said that the entire crew of the ferry has been tested for illegal drugs and those results will come back in the next two weeks.

Engleman declined to comment on news reports that the ship's captain, Michael Gansas, might not have been in the boat's bridge at the time of the accident, in violation of New York City regulations. The rule guarantees that someone can take over if the pilot is incapacitated during docking.

But Engleman said that witnesses have given conflicting accounts of who was on the bridge.

"We will not speculate or offer second-hand information or rumors on that issue until we know for sure," she said.

The NTSB has not talked to Gansas but said his lawyer has agreed to an interview Tuesday.

A Breathalyzer test on Gansas two hours after the crash was negative for alcohol, Engleman added.

Despite the negative alcohol and drug tests on Smith and Gansas, human error was clearly emerging as the dominant theory for the accident, which caused a gruesome, terrifying scene on Wednesday. Those who survived the crash watched passengers lose limbs and even be decapitated as part of the ship was ripped open.

In addition to the deaths, about 60 people were injured.

Engleman discounted weather conditions and mechanical problems as possible causes for the accident.

"There is no sign of mechanical or engine trouble," she said at a press conference near the dock where the wrecked ferry remained, partially covered by a blue tarp. "There was no loss of power or propulsion control. There were no alarms."

Some who ride the ferry regularly said they felt it was going faster than normal.

But Engleman said that the boat "neither sped up or slowed down at the time of the accident. Operating speed of this vessel is 15 or 16 miles per hour."

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