American passenger ferries boast strong safety records

October 16, 2003|By Mae M. Cheng | Mae M. Cheng,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - Because passenger ferries in the United States have glowing safety records and most recent concerns have focused on them as possible terrorist targets, fatal accidents like the one that occurred yesterday had not been on the radar of many maritime industry experts.

"Everybody's talking about it in disbelief," said Gary Gowen, a ship lookout with the nonprofit Maritime Association of the Port of New York/New Jersey based in Lower Manhattan.

"We always hear about these major accidents in Europe and Japan," Gowen said. "But in the New York harbor, the ferry boats are very safe."

The accident on the Andrew J. Barberi, which occurred as the vessel was docking at its destination on Staten Island, was the first fatal crash on the Staten Island ferry in modern history.

"It sounds like a horrible freak accident," said Patricia Patterson, a spokeswoman with Washington State Ferries, which runs the largest ferry system in the United States, carrying about 25 million passengers a year on 29 vessels.

"We've never heard of anything quite like this," said Patterson, who added that she does not know of any fatal accidents on any of the large ferry systems in the United States.

Patterson said a lot of discussion in the industry since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has focused on security issues.

The Staten Island ferry has boasted a strong safety record. Minor injuries occurred in three accidents in the 1990s - one ferry slammed into a pier, another rammed a cluster of pilings while docking in foggy weather and yet another banged into a slip in downtown Manhattan.

The earliest charters between Staten Island and Manhattan date to 1713. The city took over the ferry system in the early 1900s. Passengers were carried by steamboats until 1981, when they were replaced by diesel-powered ships that can carry up to 6,000 people. The Andrew J. Barberi, named for a high school football coach, was among the vessels commissioned in 1981.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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