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N.Y. Ferry Inquiry Focuses On Pilot, Drugs

Oct 18, 2003 | COX NEWS SERVICE

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

The pilot, Richard Smith, was 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 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 on the craft's bridge at the time of the accident, a violation of New York City regulations.

The rule assures that someone can take over if the pilot is incapacitated during docking.

Victims' families have responded to the reports by demanding that Gansas pay for his alleged neglect.

But Engleman said that witness accounts of who was on the bridge have been conflicting.

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

The safety board has not talked to Gansas but said that his lawyer has agreed to an interview Tuesday.

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

Those who survived the crash watched others lose limbs 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 news 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."

Engleman said that the boat did not slow down as it approached the dock.

"It neither sped up or slowed down at the time of the accident," she said. "Operating speed of this vessel is 15 or 16 miles per hour."

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