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Weather, Mechanics Ruled Out in N.Y. Ferry Probe

Oct 18, 2003 | Washington Post

Federal investigators said Friday that neither mechanical problems nor bad weather caused a Staten Island ferry to slam into a pier Wednesday, killing 10 people and leaving many more seriously injured.

They also said Friday that tests showed neither of the ferry pilots was under the influence of illicit drugs or alcohol.

Investigators are now focusing on the actions of Assistant Capt. Richard "Jeff" Smith, 55, who piloted the boat and reportedly collapsed at the helm before the ferry hit wooden pilings several hundred yards from the docking terminal. The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a subpoena for blood and urine samples from Smith, who had not been interviewed by authorities. The NTSB plans to look for traces of the medications he may have been taking.

Smith fled the scene as soon as the heavily damaged ferry docked, returning to his home on Staten Island where he slit his wrists and shot himself in the chest with a pellet gun.

In the days since then, two contradictory portraits have emerged of Smith, who is hospitalized in critical condition. A former commissioner at the city's Department of Transportation describes Smith as a difficult man who barred a senior official from the bridge and refused to abide by overtime regulations. But friends and co-workers say he is an affable neighbor and devoted worker.

Christopher Lynn, a former commissioner with the New York City Department of Transportation, said he disciplined Smith in 1997 after he refused to allow a deputy commissioner into the pilot's wheelhouse.

Lynn said he had reassigned Smith to pilot a small boat that ferried corpses to Potter's Field, a burial plot for the indigent. Upon hearing that Smith was back at the helm of the Staten Island ferry boat known as the "Andrew J. Barberi" at the time of accident, Lynn said: "It's maddening to me, and not just for the dead. There are all those people who were maimed. My first question is [who] put him back?"

A Transportation Department spokesman disputed Lynn's comments, noting that Smith's records showed no disciplinary actions nor evidence of an official transfer. The spokesman said that while Smith and other pilots filled in occasionally on the Potter's Field run, Smith mainly piloted the Staten Island ferry. Smith last piloted the Potter's Field run four years ago.

Smith was involved in two earlier incidents. After a 1995 ferry accident that injured 16 people, investigators concluded that the cause was mechanical failure. Several weeks later, Smith received a departmental commendation for safely navigating a ferry into port after another mechanical failure.

City Councilman Michael McMahon, a Staten Island Democrat, said he had received several reports that "safeguards were not being enforced" on the ferries. Although the U.S. Coast Guard requires only one captain, or pilot, on the bridge, the city's Department of Transportation requires two pilots to work together at all times.

McMahon said he had been told that the captain, Michael Gansas, was not on the bridge with Smith, the ferry's assistant captain, at the time of the accident. The councilman declined to reveal his sources. NTSB Chairman Ellen G. Engleman said her agency has received conflicting reports about what transpired on the bridge of the three-ton ferry.

In Smith's Staten Island community, neighbors struggled to reconcile criticism of Smith with their image of the tall, bearded man who recently became a grandfather and who puttered around the yard outside his brick-red corner home. Known as Westerleigh, it is a close-knit neighborhood of police officers, firefighters and construction workers. A few years ago, the community organized a fundraiser for a neighbor diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, and Smith manned a table.

"When I tell you this neighborhood loves each other, it's unbelievable," said Maryann Sandberg, who has lived there for years. "When I heard of the accident, I was afraid that 10 people on our block could have been on that ferry. I was even more devastated when I found out that Jeff was involved."

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