Pilot may have been out half of ferry trip, investigators say

Boat was so off course it suggests the problem occurred before docking

October 18, 2003|By Joshua Robin and Rocco Parascandola | Joshua Robin and Rocco Parascandola,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - Investigators are looking into the possibility that Assistant Capt. Richard Smith may have blacked out for as much as half of the 25-minute ferry trip from Manhattan to Staten Island.

If Smith had been incapacitated for that long, officials speculate, it would mean Capt. Michael Gansas either was in the pilot house but powerless to act for about 10 minutes, or that he was nowhere near the pilot house where Smith was guiding the boat.

By the time the Andrew J. Barberi reached Staten Island, the boat was off-course by more than four football fields.

"If he was veering off course the way he veered off course, it could indicate the problem occurred before he was docking," said one official involved in the investigation with knowledge of how the ferry is supposed to operate. "Something happened. My guess is something happened in the middle of the ride."

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Ellen Engleman said the ferry crashed at full speed - 15 to 17 mph - indicating it was not preparing to dock. The crash Wednesday killed 10 people and injured 59.

The high winds that day were within operational guidelines, Engleman said, and "there are no signs of mechanical or engine troubles."

"There was no loss of power or propulsion control," she said. "There were no alarms. The engine room is fully intact."

The ferry is not equipped with an emergency shut-off switch, but had Gansas been on the bridge with Smith, as city Department of Transportation procedures call for when the ferry is moving - he might have been able to guide the boat to safety, investigators believe.

A review of radio transmissions between the crew and authorities on land shows there was no communication until after the crash, Engleman said. That would suggest crew members tried to handle the emergency themselves or had no time to call for help once they realized what was happening.

Gansas reportedly told police immediately after the crash that he saw Smith blacked out and tried to take control.

Engleman said Gansas has not talked to federal investigators, but his lawyer has scheduled a meeting between the captain and authorities Tuesday.

"Did the captain do what he claimed to do? ... That's the fundamental question," said the official with knowledge of the probe.

Four of the other 13 crew members have been interviewed by the NTSB.

Smith, an 18-year ferry veteran, remains hospitalized after trying to commit suicide after the crash.

Blood alcohol tests conducted on him and five other crew members, including Gansas, were negative, Engleman said. Smith also tested negative for narcotics, she said. Drug tests on other crew members will take about two weeks to complete, and the NTSB will subpoena Smith's medical records, including any history of prescription medication, Engleman said.

Sources have said Smith told police responding to his suicide attempt that he had blacked out because he had not taken his blood pressure medication.

Engleman said the NTSB will review all of Smith's personnel files, including those pertaining to hours worked.

At Smith's request, the DOT downgraded him in May to assistant captain, from provisional captain, because it allowed him to work steadier hours.

The move also meant a pay cut of $6,000, but sources said Smith made up for the loss by working overtime. His annual salary, not including overtime, is $50,144, said Tom Cocola, a DOT spokesman.

It was unclear how many hours of overtime Smith had logged this year, but one law enforcement source said he believed Smith had doubled his salary last year by working extra hours.

Sources said Smith could face criminal charges for leaving the scene of an accident.

His work history with the DOT shows he has earned "outstanding" evaluations and twice has been awarded letters of commendation, one for piloting the Barberi through a 1995 mechanical failure that caused it to slam into a dock, injuring several people.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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