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No One Behind the Wheel

The mystery behind a tragic N.Y. ferry crash

Oct 20, 2003 | NEWSWEEK Most days, the free ferry ride was a romantic glide past the Statue of Liberty, back and forth between Staten Island and Manhattan. Occasionally, the orange boats would nudge a wooden piling as they lumbered in to dock.

BUT LAST WEDNESDAY afternoon the Staten Island Ferry—3,335 tons of steel the length of a football field—smashed into a concrete pier at 17mph, slicing the boat open like a sardine can. Exploding plastic seats and snapped I-beams decapitated passengers and severed limbs.

The disaster, which killed 10 of the 1,500 aboard and injured 65, was New York’s worst maritime accident in generations. Authorities quickly ruled out strong winds or mechanical malfunction as the cause, and trained their attention on the man at the wheel, Assistant Capt. Richard Smith.

The 55-year-old veteran pilot apparently lost control well before reaching berth. “He was slumped in his captain’s chair, phased out but not totally blacked out,” said Michael McMahon, a New York city council member from Staten Island. Amid the mayhem, Smith, who was uninjured in the crash, fled for home.

He locked himself in a bathroom, slashed his wrist and shot himself in the chest with a pellet gun. But the apparent suicide attempt failed. On the way to the hospital, Smith reportedly told police officers that he had taken blood-pressure medication before the accident, pills that can cause dizziness and fainting.

Authorities are investigating whether Smith—who hasn’t spoken publicly since the tragedy—simply panicked after realizing the enormity of the accident. Tests for alcohol and illegal drugs in his system came up negative. Neighbors say Smith, who lives in Staten Island with his wife and daughters, was a quiet type who played classical music and liked gardening and tinkering with his old Ford.

If he had health problems, his friends were unaware. “He’s the kind of guy who would feel so responsible for this that it might drive him to do something” like suicide, said Stella LoBianco, a neighbor. Coincidentally, Smith had been cleared of wrongdoing in a less serious mishap at the same terminal, with the same boat, in 1995.
If Smith had known his blood-pressure medication could impair him, he could be open to criminal charges. Meanwhile, authorities want to know why the ferry’s captain, Michael Gansas, who was supposed to have been at Smith’s side in the wheelhouse, was apparently somewhere else on the boat.
“It was a mental malfunction or medical malfunction,” McMahon says, “and the backup was not in place to avert this horrible accident.” (Gansas reportedly told police and fellow crew members he was in the wheelhouse.) The full investigation could take as long as a year.

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