10 dead as ferry in N.Y. hits pier

About 50 people injured

pilot tries to take own life

Boat docked too fast, officials say

NTSB will investigate Staten Island accident

October 16, 2003|By Glenn Thrush | Glenn Thrush,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - A Staten Island-bound ferry slammed into the St. George terminal just before rush hour yesterday, killing at least 10 passengers and injuring about 50 in what one survivor called a "death ride."

The 310-foot Andrew J. Barberi, carrying as many as 1,500 passengers from Lower Manhattan, crashed into a slip after apparently failing to slow during docking maneuvers, according to city officials and witnesses.

The cause of the crash remained unknown last night. One of the boat's two captains, Richard Smith of Staten Island, drove to his house and tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists and shooting himself with a pellet gun shortly after the accident, according to police sources. He was in critical condition at St. Vincent's Hospital Staten Island, officials said.

Police sources said last night that Smith lost consciousness in the moments before the crash, but it was not clear why.

"All of a sudden I heard this explosion," said Paul Wiedemann, a lawyer who was dozing on the ferry as it hit the dock. "I saw pieces of the boat falling apart and people running to the back of the boat. ... I saw the wood and things coming through the boat."

The 3,300-ton ferry hit the pier with such force that it instantly crushed to death some people on the main deck and tore limbs from some near the bulkhead.

"It was chaos," said passenger Frank Corchado, 29, an elevator mechanic who helped others after the crash and was treated for trauma at St. Vincent's. "It was just people everywhere, bodies everywhere on top of bodies."

The massive pier ripped a jagged hole that extended halfway along the vessel's hull, shattering a row of windows a few feet above the waterline and peeling the steel bulkhead like a sardine can.

Corchado said he helped pull chairs off one injured man. "I held him in my arms and I tried to stop the bleeding," said Corchado, who had blood on his pants. "I don't know if he died."

An ashen-faced Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg arrived on Staten Island via helicopter after being whisked from Yankee Stadium where he was attending the American League Championship Series.

"It's a terrible tragedy," he said. "People who were on their way home were all of a sudden taken from us."

Passenger Luis Melendez, a senior clerk at a Manhattan brokerage firm, said: "There were some people standing on the front and all of a sudden I see two or three guys run back saying, `We're going to hit, we're going to hit.'

"No sooner than they start running back, I started seeing the right side of the boat opening up like a can and there's debris flying all over the place, glass, metal, wood. Whoever was sitting on that side, if they didn't react right away, they were buried or they were severely lacerated."

Twenty-seven people were taken to Staten Island University Hospital. Seven had serious injuries, including severed limbs, spinal cord injuries, chest wounds and fractures, according to hospital officials. Three required surgery.

At St. Vincent's, three people were in critical condition and two were in serious condition, hospital officials said. Seven people were treated and released, and 10 were under observation last night.

"Say a little prayer for the deceased and those fighting in the hospital," Bloomberg said.

Speaking early in the evening, the mayor played down the report that the captain had fled the scene and cautioned against drawing conclusions before investigators completed their work.

A police source said the captain was taken to the hospital after someone at his home called 911 about an hour after the accident. Smith bolted the scene so quickly that he left his keys behind and was forced to break into his home, the law enforcement source said.

The crew members were being interviewed by police and tested for drugs and alcohol, Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg said the 45-mph winds raking New York Harbor at the time may have contributed to the accident. National Transportation Safety Board officials were heading to the scene to lead the investigation, a spokesman for the agency said.

There was "no indication" that the crash was related to terrorism, and the boat, which sustained no damage below the waterline, isn't in danger of sinking, Bloomberg said.

The ferry's second captain, John Mauldin, remained at the scene and is cooperating with investigators, police sources said.

Surviving passengers said the boat, which was commissioned in 1981, didn't seem to slow down as it approached its berth.

"There was no deceleration at all," Wiedemann said.

T.J. Stiles, 39, had taken his twin 15-year-old niece and nephew for a ride from Manhattan when he felt the boat shudder and saw a cloud of concrete dust rise from the pier.

"This is their 24 hours in New York and they're on a death ride," he said.

When the boat came to a stop, passengers began grabbing life vests and scrambling toward the other end in a panicked rush for safety.

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