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Probe Under Way In Deadly Ferry Crash

Oct 16, 2003 | CNN

Attention turned Thursday to the pilot of the Staten Island ferry that slammed into a concrete pier a day earlier, killing 10 people and injuring 42.

Assistant Capt. Richard Smith remained in critical condition Thursday afternoon at St. Vincent's Hospital on Staten Island.

New York City Councilman Michael McMahon said city officials believe Smith had passed out at the vessel's controls due to an unspecified medical condition.

Law enforcement sources told CNN that tests show Smith did not have alcohol in his bloodstream during the accident. The results of a drug test is still pending.

Other officials, including those at the National Transportation Safety Board, avoided discussing any theories about the cause of the accident.

"There are a lot of conflicting stories about what happened on the bridge yesterday," NTSB Chairwoman Ellen Engleman told CNN. "We are looking to find the probable cause of this tragedy."

The NTSB began interviewing crew members at 1 p.m. Thursday, Engleman said. Investigators are also looking into weather factors and trying to determine if all regulations were followed.

The New York Department of Transportation, which oversees the ferry service, requires that two people be on the bridge while the vessel is in motion.

Engleman said she hasn't determined whether anyone was on the bridge with Smith at the time of the accident.

Immediately after the crash, Smith ran from the boat, went home and slit his wrists and shot himself with a pellet or BB gun, law enforcement sources said.

Smith was at the helm when the same ferry crashed into the same pier in 1995, city Transportation Department officials said. There were only minor injuries in that crash, which was blamed on propeller failure.

Smith received a letter of commendation for his actions in that accident. He is an 18-year veteran of the ferry service, beginning as a deckhand and later becoming a pilot. He has spent the last 16 years as a pilot, receiving "outstanding" evaluations over the years, those officials said.

"At this time, Rich is in critical condition in intensive care, and he's unable to speak," said his lawyer, Alan Abramson. "His family offers condolences and prayers to all those who have been affected by this tragedy."

Eight victims remained at the hospital Thursday afternoon, five of them in critical condition, said Dr. Pietro Carpenito, St. Vincent's chief of anesthesiology. Some of the victims had crushed limbs that had to be amputated.

Another three people were reported missing, but Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said only one of those, a woman from Staten Island, may have been on the ferry. Police divers will look for any unrecovered remains Thursday afternoon, he said.

Regular ferry service resumed Thursday morning, while the crippled boat remained at the dock. It sustained significant damage, Engleman said, and will be moved as soon as the vessel is considered secure.

The accident happened at 3:21 p.m. EDT, before rush hour, as the 310-foot-long ferry was about to dock at Staten Island.

The ferry struck a concrete pier surrounded by wooden pilings, which gashed the vessel's port side. As the ferry moved ahead, the pier continued ripping the steel and windows of the ferry's main deck, all the way to the rear of the ship.

Survivor recalls horror

Passenger Peter Murray said the ferry showed no sign of slowing down before hitting the pier.

"The pilot never stopped. He never slowed down," Murray said Thursday on CNN's "American Morning." "Usually, you feel the boat slow down before it hits the dock, approximately maybe five minutes or so ahead of time, you know, before they dock."

The accident left twisted steel, broken pilings and other debris all over the main deck.

Murray said his first reaction was to yell out for everyone to run to the back of the ferry.

"I'm like, 'Run!' " Murray recalled. "Because you felt it chewing and crumbling. I looked. I saw smoke. I didn't even look back again until I was in the back of the boat.

"I went to one side, I went downstairs, and everybody seemed OK. Then I went to the other side, and it was tragedy. It was just tragic."

Another passenger, T.J. Stiles, said no announcements were made about the accident and no instructions were given to the passengers. After the collision, the ferry backed up and a tug boat helped guide it into the docks, allowing the unhurt passengers to get off, Stiles said.

Investigation may take a year
Engleman said the NTSB will be "looking into all records of the captains themselves as well as the prior 72 hours in their lives."

She said the investigation could take as long as a year. Engleman said there was no recording device on the vessel.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that all crew members were being interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol "per the normal procedure."

While the ferry can carry as many as 6,000 people, its normal passenger load is 1,500, Bloomberg said. There was no exact count of the passengers, but the mayor said he did not believe the ferry was packed.

The metropolitan area was under a wind advisory Wednesday, and a gale warning was in effect along the water. Winds were expected to be sustained above 40 mph.

Bloomberg said it was too early to say whether the winds were a factor in the wreck.

The mayor said that the wreck caused no structural damage to the ferry below the water line and that it leaked no fuel into the water.

The Staten Island ferry service, run by the city of New York, operates 24 hours a day.

On a typical weekday, five boats run between St. George Terminal on Staten Island and the Whitehall Terminal in lower Manhattan, with departures every half-hour during the day and every 15 minutes at rush hours.

About 70,000 passengers ride the ferries daily, according to the ferry service Web site. The ride takes about 25 minutes.

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