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Pilot Is Focus of Ferry Crash Probe

Oct 16, 2003 | & AP

The probe into the horrific crash of a Staten Island ferry focused Thursday on whether its pilot fell unconscious while crossing New York Harbor. Law enforcement sources said the pilot fled and tried to commit suicide after the accident, which killed 10 people and injured 42 others.

AUTHORITIES SAID for most of the day that an 11th person was missing and presumed dead. But she was found safe at a friend's home Thursday.
Ellen Engleman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a news briefing Thursday morning that the agency was taking over the investigation, which could take as long as a year.

Engleman would not address what she described as "a lot of conflicting reports" about the pilot's behavior before the crash. "We don't want to pass on stories or rumors," she said.

A co-worker told authorities that the pilot, Assistant Capt. Richard J. Smith, 55, was asleep and slumped over the controls as the ferry bore in on the concrete and wood pier at high speed, a law enforcement source told The Associated Press.

City Councilman Michael McMahon, who represents Staten Island and was briefed by police, told reporters that investigators were looking into whether Smith had failed to take his medication for high blood pressure and lost consciousness as a result.

Quoting police sources, the New York Post reported that Smith told investigators that when he came to, he accidentally shifted the throttle into high gear, sending the ferry, the Andrew J. Barberi, crashing into a maintenance pier about 400 feet from the nearest slip.

The captain of the vessel noticed that the ferry was off course and tried to get control moments before the crash at the St. George Terminal on Staten Island at the end of its 5.2-mile run across New York Harbor, McMahon said.

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

City Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall said Smith had been an employee for 15 years. "There's nothing in his record that we have seen so far that would indicate a problem," she said.

Smith jumped ship and later tried to kill himself in his nearby home by slitting his wrists and shooting himself twice in the chest with a pellet gun, MSNBC TV's Jerry Nachman reported Wednesday night.

Smith underwent surgery at St. Vincent's Hospital and was in critical condition Thursday. He was being represented by an attorney, said police, who obtained a sample of his blood for testing.

"The family and all concerned hope that people will not rush to judgment," Alan Abramson, an attorney for Smith, said in a brief statement. "Their prayers go out to all the victims."

Twenty-two other victims of the accident were also treated at St. Vincent's, including at least one amputee. Fewer than 10 remained in the hospital Thursday, five of them in critical condition.

At Staten Island University Hospital, two victims with amputations were among those brought in from the ferry, said Arleen Ryback, a spokeswoman. Others were suffering from back and spinal injuries, while one victim reported chest pains and another had hypothermia.

All of the ferry's crew members survived and will be tested for drugs and alcohol, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. The crew members referred investigators to their union lawyers.

Engleman said the NTSB would look into the crew members' records and how they spent the previous 72 hours, and examine engineering factors, deck operations and weather conditions. Winds were gusting up to 40 mph when the accident occurred.

The boat, which suffered "very dramatic" damage, was being secured and would be moved from the dock as soon as possible, she said.

Despite having its entire side ripped open, the vessel was structurally sound under the water line, and its engine was still functioning, Bloomberg said. It was able to turn around and dock on the other side after the impact.

Survivors of the 3:20 p.m. crash, the city's worst mass transit accident in at least a generation, described a horrific scene after the pier sliced through the side of the 300-foot vessel, mowing down passengers near the bow.

"Everybody was screaming as the pilings protruded through the boat and began ripping the entire side of the boat out," passenger Bob Carroll told the New York newspaper Newsday.

"It was like the Titanic hitting the iceberg, but instead, the side of the boat was ripped out by these giant wooden beams," he said. "It was like a can opener was ripping the whole side of the boat out."

"The scene was total chaos," passenger Frank Corchado, 29, of Staten Island, told the AP, recounting a tableau of horrific sights: a decapitated man, a legless woman, a fellow passenger bleeding from his eyes.

"There was a lady without legs, right in the middle of the boat," he said. "She was screaming. You ever see anything like that?"

The ferry was carrying an estimated 1,500 people, 36 of whom were treated at the scene or were immediately taken to hospitals. Six others walked away injured and went to hospitals later.

Corchado said he tried to help as many people as possible get out. Witnesses said that some jumped into the wind-swept 62-degree water and that others ran as the pier chewed up the side of the boat.

"Most of the people who died were older people, I believe, who couldn't move or didn't have enough time to get out of the way," Corchado said.

Most of the victims were seated in the window seats on the front right side of the ferry. Some of the injured were pulled from the rubble by rescue workers; one of the dead was found in the water off Staten Island.


Ferry service was shut down immediately, forcing thousands of rush hour commuters to head for buses and taxis. It resumed Thursday morning with a boat departing from the St. George terminal just after 5 a.m.

One of those aboard the early morning boat, Greg Ellis, 48, said he was a little nervous. "You're always thinking it could happen again if it happened one time," he said.

The accident occurred on a day when the city was focused on the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox American League playoff game. Bloomberg was at the game when he heard the news and rushed to Staten Island.

"People who were on the way home, all of a sudden, taken from us," said Bloomberg, who announced the deaths after touring the splintered wood, twisted steel and shattered glass aboard the ferry.

The ferry is among the city's most beloved institutions, providing free rides and offering a spectacular view of New York Harbor. It carries 70,000 commuters per day between Staten Island and lower Manhattan.

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