Probe of crash focuses on ferry pilot's actions

Investigators suggest blood pressure medication may have caused collapse

October 17, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The investigation of a Staten Island Ferry crash that killed 10 people and injured dozens more focused yesterday on a pilot who slumped at the wheelhouse controls as the boat swerved off course and slammed full speed into a pier that tore open its starboard flank and raked passengers like rag dolls.

In addition, investigators said they were questioning whether other members of the crew were in a position to give backup assistance to the pilot when he collapsed as the ferry sped toward collision Wednesday. The ferry's captain tried, too late, to intervene, a police official said.

City regulations require that both the captain and his assistant be in the pilot's house during docking. Investigators were trying to determine whether the captain was there when the boat hit the pier on Staten Island.

The pilot, assistant captain Richard J. Smith, may have blacked out or become delirious because of a blood-pressure condition and the medication he took for it, some investigators said.

One said that Smith, who slashed his wrists and shot himself with a pellet gun after walking away from the chaos of the crash, told an officer on the way to a hospital that he had high blood pressure and had taken his medication that morning. He was in critical condition yesterday. Medical experts said that the medications could cause blood pressure to fall and cause dizziness or fainting in some cases.

Seven of 67 people injured in the crash also remained in critical condition, some with horrendous injuries: One person lost a foot, another a leg, two lost both legs and one person was paralyzed; others had critical spine or head injuries. Some of the dead had also lost limbs or were decapitated.

Clean record on job

Smith, 55, an 18-year ferry-service veteran with a clean record on the job, has a lawyer, although the Staten Island district attorney said his inquiry was not now a criminal investigation. Blood samples obtained from the pilot and other crew members found no evidence that illegal drugs or alcohol were factors, officials said.

A day after the tragedy, thousands of commuters rode the rumbling ferries again across a sun-drenched harbor, federal and city investigators began what could be a yearlong inquiry and a stunned city tried to fathom New York's worst ferry disaster in 132 years. It was the city's deadliest mass transit accident since 16 people were killed in a Times Square subway crash in 1928.

Gov. George E. Pataki, in a news conference on Staten Island, said that as deadly as it had been, the crash, at 3:20 p.m., might have been far worse if it had occurred an hour or two later, when the number of homebound commuters would have been in the thousands, not the hundreds.

A swirl of emotions and images marked the day: unanswerable grief among family and friends of the dead and maimed; anxieties among families of the amputees and others who suffered terrible injuries; widespread concern among ferry riders and other New Yorkers wanting to know what had happened and how it could be prevented from occurring again.

2-pronged investigation

It was a two-pronged investigation, with the National Transportation Safety Board, the Coast Guard and the police and fire departments looking into safety issues, and the police and the Staten Island district attorney focusing on whether a crime was committed, and if so what it might have been and who was responsible. A dozen crew members were questioned yesterday, but not Smith.

The investigators discounted the 45-mph winds that had buffeted the boat during its crossing, noting that ferries often operate in high winds and heavy weather. They also said an examination of the twisted wreckage of the ferry, the Andrew J. Barberi, had turned up no signs of mechanical failure.

Little is ruled out

But little was being ruled out. A senior law-enforcement official said that investigators were checking for possible maritime violations - specifically, whether the boat had been mishandled and whether any violations were criminal.

The Staten Island district attorney, William L. Murphy, said his office and the police were investigating the crash and deaths in what was, as yet, an accident inquiry, not a criminal inquiry.

"If there is some element suggesting criminality, we'll make it a criminal investigation," he said.

Ellen Engleman, chairwoman of the transportation safety board, said it was too early to address specific causes. She said investigators would examine training, mechanics, operating procedures and other factors. A former official of the Transportation Department said the culture of the ferry operation was clannish and insular, and that the captain's jobs, which pay $50,000 a year, are highly prized.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, speaking at a news conference with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said that federal investigators had met with city agencies and that all had pledged cooperation.

While much of the early inquiry was focused on the pilot, Smith's lawyer, Alan Abramson, urged that no one jump to conclusions.

"The family and all concerned hope that people will not rush to judgment," he said. "Their prayers go out to all the victims." He said he had not been able to speak with his client.

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