October 16, 2003
10 Die as Staten Island Ferry Slams Into Pier
By JANNY SCOTT
A Staten Island ferry moving at a rapid clip in gusting winds crashed into a pier at the St. George ferry terminal yesterday afternoon, killing 10 people and injuring dozens of others as the concrete and wood pier sliced through its side, mowing down tourists and commuters.
The exact cause of the 3:20 p.m. accident was not clear last night. But law enforcement officials said the ferry's pilot fled the scene to his home in the Westerleigh neighborhood of Staten Island, barricaded himself in a bathroom, slit his wrists and shot himself twice in the chest with a powerful pellet gun.
The pilot, identified by city officials as Assistant Capt. Richard Smith, survived and was in critical condition at a local hospital, where detectives were waiting to interview him. Mr. Smith was in charge of the boat when it neared the Staten Island terminal at a high speed, and his captain noticed that the ferry was off course, according to one police official. The captain tried to get control of the boat, the official said, but it slammed into a concrete maintenance pier about 400 feet from the nearest ferry slip.
Investigators were trying to determine last night whether Mr. Smith had been drinking or taking drugs, had fallen asleep or was perhaps incapacitated as a result of a medical condition, a law enforcement official said.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, speaking at a news conference, called the collision a tragic accident, but declined to speculate on the cause. He said all the crew members were alive and were being questioned. Ferry service was suspended indefinitely with the possibility of resuming by morning.
"People who were on their way home, all of a sudden taken from us," Mr. Bloomberg said of the collision. "Our prayers are for their families and for those who were injured."
The accident occurred as the 3 p.m. ferry from Manhattan approached the terminal near the end of the 25-minute trip. Some passengers said later that they had noticed that the ferry appeared to be traveling at an unusually high speed, was approaching at an odd angle and had not slowed down normally as it neared the shore.
It then missed its pier and slammed into the maintenance pier. Passengers compared what ensued to a scene from "Titanic." They said there was an ominous grinding sound followed by a bang, like an explosion. Then the pier, like an iceberg, sheared into the side of the main deck, tearing it open.
With no announcements or instructions by the boat's crew, passengers began fleeing in confusion and panic. "The beams are coming directly at you, and the side of the boat is disappearing," said Robert Carroll, a lawyer for the state court system, who was on board. "They're ripping up steel, glass, chairs. People were falling. At one point I was in a pile, and I just got up and kept running. It kept coming and coming. If you didn't keep running, you were dead."
Francis Johnson, visiting New York City from Pensacola, Fla., said, "There was a man in the water clinging to the piling. People started grabbing life jackets. It was very choppy out there, very windy out there. There was all kinds of flotsam and jetsam in the water. It was chaos. The whole time we were not given any instructions."
Sean Johnson, a 26-year-old construction worker, said: "I ran to the back of the boat. I was going to jump in the water but some guy grabbed me and said, stop. The boat had finally come to a stop."
Some bodies had been sliced in half, one law enforcement official said. Two people were decapitated; many suffered amputations. Part of the main deck's ceiling collapsed. Debris rained down on passengers as they fled for the stairs to other decks.
Though there were conflicting accounts of how the accident happened, the police official who described the moments before the crash said that the ferry's captain had noticed that the boat was off course and yelled to Mr. Smith, who did not respond. The captain then tried to take control, the official said.
As pandemonium reigned on board, the boat was moved away from the damaged pier with the help of tugboats. After 20 minutes, it docked in a ferry slip and passengers were able to leave.
The ferry, which went into service in 1981 and is named after a high school football coach, has a capacity of 6,000 people. It was unclear yesterday how many were on board. "The boat normally carries about 1,500 and we think it was fully populated," Mr. Bloomberg said. "That's probably a good estimate. We don't have an exact count and never will really."
Firefighters and rescue workers swarmed onto the boat and began digging out bodies. Scuba divers plunged into the water to search for survivors. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is heading the investigation, dispatched a team of marine investigators led by a former cargo ship captain.
One body was pulled from the harbor.
Last night, administrators at St. Vincent's Staten Island Hospital said 22 people were being treated for injuries that ranged from bruises to amputations. Five people were admitted to the hospital and three underwent surgery, including Mr. Smith. Others were treated at Staten Island University Hospital.
About 100 people gathered at a family assistance center set up in a municipal office building on Stuyvesant Place behind Staten Island Borough Hall. Staffed by grief counselors and clergy members, the center offered information from the police and hospitals about the identities of the dead.
Some 1,500 calls poured in to the city's 311 information number from people seeking information about victims and survivors, said Edward Skyler, a spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg. "The mayor's main concern is that people who have lost loved ones be contacted quickly and sensibly," he said.
United States Representative Vito J. Fossella, who represents Staten Island, said: "It is a gut-wrenching day for the people of Staten Island. Every household on Staten Island has a family member or knows someone who takes the ferry every day. It is something everyone can relate to."
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said: "My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the victims of this terrible tragedy. While all of us in New York are shocked to learn of the crash, we know that the community of Staten Island has been especially hard hit."
Back on the Manhattan end of the ferry line, police officers and transportation workers with bullhorns turned thousands of commuters away from the ferry terminal. They pointed them toward express buses and the R train to Brooklyn with connections to shuttle bus service to Staten Island.
On most weekdays, five boats carry some 65,000 passengers the 5.2 miles between Manhattan and Staten Island in a total of 104 trips. Serious accidents are rare. But in 1978, 173 people were treated at hospitals after a ferry crashed into a seawall at the tip of Lower Manhattan in thick fog.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company