Ferry pilot involved in 1995 accident

Coast Guard investigation partly blamed crash on `misjudgment of operator'

October 25, 2003|By Stephanie Saul and Jo Craven McGinty | Stephanie Saul and Jo Craven McGinty,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - The assistant captain at the helm when 10 people were killed on the Staten Island ferry last week was partly responsible for a similar accident in 1995, according to a U.S. Coast Guard report of the incident.

The Coast Guard report on the April 1995 docking crash that injured 16 people concluded that "misjudgment of operator" was one of the reasons the vessel slammed into a Staten Island pier.

The name of the ferry pilot is blacked out in the Coast Guard report, which Newsday obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. But the city Department of Transportation has said Assistant Captain Richard Smith was piloting the Andrew J. Barberi during both crashes.

The Coast Guard report calls into question the Transportation Department's glowing portrayal of Smith's record.

After last week's ferry crash, which also injured 65 people, Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall told reporters a preliminary review of Smith's file showed that he had an outstanding record, including two departmental commendations - one for his professional behavior during the crash in April 1995.

Although Smith received a commendation, the Coast Guard also issued a "letter of caution" - similar to a warning letter- for the same accident, according to the Coast Guard records.

The Coast Guard, however, found no negligence or misconduct on Smith's part.

Yesterday, Transportation Department spokesman Tom Cocola said the agency has no record of a letter of caution to Smith, but he did not explain the discrepancies between the Coast Guard report and the city's statements on the cause of the 1995 accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation of last week's accident, but it has been unable to interview Smith because he has been hospitalized since attempting suicide hours after the crash.

The 40-page report by the Coast Guard, which investigates many maritime accidents, concludes that the 1995 crash was the result of combined factors.

"A synergy of events occurred as this casualty progressed; mechanical failure, insufficient maintenance practices, and misjudgment of operator, combined, share culpability," the report said.

Although the report said the vessel's propulsion system was not operating normally, it added: "The operator during this casualty, for whatever reason (not paying attention, speed too fast for maneuvering situation, and/or events unfolding faster than he could react ... any number of events), was not able to `control' or `prevent'" the crash.

The report also faulted the Staten Island ferry for its failure to notify the Coast Guard of the mechanical problem on the Barberi before its departure that day - a responsibility that a Coast Guard officer said ultimately rests with the captain.

The report went into great detail about the operation and maintenance of the Barberi's German-made propulsion system. The same propeller that failed in the April 1995 crash had failed three times before.

During the previous propeller failures, the boat's operators were "able to overcome, control or prevent any casualty" by allowing another propeller to take over, the report said.

But it said the operator during this accident - Smith - was not able to "control" or "prevent," and made the mistake of shutting down both propellers.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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