Pilot investigated for possibly falling asleep in ferry crash that kills 10

Thursday, October 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Authorities on Thursday investigated whether a Staten Island ferry pilot lost consciousness during a trip across a windy New York Harbor before the mighty vessel slammed into a pier, killing 10 people and injuring 42 others, including three who lost limbs.

The pilot bolted the scene so quickly that he left behind his gear and his keys, then broke into his house where he slit his wrists and shot himself with a pellet gun, a law enforcement source told The Associated Press. The source spoke on condition of anonymity.

The pilot, identified by the source as Richard Smith, was in critical condition Wednesday night after surgery, St. Vincent's Hospital said. It was the same hospital where 22 victims _ including at least one amputee _ were rushed after the 3:20 p.m. crash, the city's worst mass transit accident in at least a generation.

A co-worker of Smith told authorities the pilot had been asleep, slumped over the controls, the source said.

About reports that the pilot had passed out or fallen asleep at the wheel, National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Ellen Engleman said Thursday the agency has ``a lot of conflicting reports as far as that. We don't want to pass on stories or rumors.''

Witnesses said the boat never appeared to slow down before it hit a maintenance pier, hundreds of feet from the slips where the ferries normally dock. The ferry was immediately backed up and moved to one of the passenger slips, where rescue crews began their work.

``The scene was total chaos,'' said passenger Frank Corchado, 29, of Staten Island, recounting a tableau of horrific sights: a decapitated man, a legless woman, a fellow passenger bleeding from his eyes.

``There was a lady without legs, right in the middle of the boat,'' he said. ``She was screaming. You ever see anything like that?''

The dead, one woman and nine men, ranged from age 25 to 52, police said. The names of all but one were released early Thursday.

The crew was to be interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol, said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Such testing is routine after major transportation accidents. The crew members referred investigators to their union lawyers.

Smith was being represented by an attorney, said police, who obtained a sample of his blood for testing. Telephone messages left at his home were not returned.

The 310-foot craft was carrying an estimated 1,500 people, 36 of whom were treated at the scene or immediately taken to hospitals. Six others walked away injured and went to hospitals later.

Corchado said he tried to help as many people as possible get out. Witnesses said some jumped into the windswept 62-degree water and others ran as the pier chewed up the side of the boat.

``Most of the people who died were older people, I believe, who couldn't move or didn't have enough time to get out of the way,'' Corchado said.

The victims were seated in the window seats on the front right side of the Andrew J. Barberi. Some of the injured were pulled from the rubble by rescue workers; one of the dead was found in the water off Staten Island.

Evan Robinson, a musician waiting for a ferry on Staten Island, said he watched as the craft suddenly veered crazily. Two other witnesses said the ferry appeared to speed up when it should have slowed down for docking.

``I looked on in disbelief,'' Robinson said. ``I said, `Oh, my God, he's going to crash!'''

``The ferry was coming too fast,'' said witness William Gonzalez, who lives nearby. ``They had no control to stop the boat.''

Corchado said it felt as if the ferry accelerated as it approached land, waking him as he napped on the trip home. He ran away from the front of the boat to safety. ``My soul's killing me a little bit,'' he said.

At Staten Island University Hospital, two victims with amputations were among those brought in from the ferry, said spokeswoman Arleen Ryback. Others were suffering from back and spinal injuries; one victim reported chest pains and one had hypothermia.

Ferry service was immediately shut down, forcing thousands of evening rush hour commuters to head for buses and taxis. Service resumed early Thursday with a boat departing from the St. George terminal just after 5 a.m.

One of those aboard the early morning boat, Greg Ellis, 48, said he was a little nervous.

``You're always thinking it could happen again if it happened one time,'' Ellis said.

Engleman said the NTSB would be taking over the investigation, which could take up to a year. The agency would investigate human factors, engineering factors, deck operations and weather conditions, she said. Winds were gusting up to 40 mph when the accident happened.

The agency will also look into the records of the crew and how they spent the previous 72 hours, Engleman said. She also said the boat, which had suffered ``very dramatic'' damage, was being secured and would be moved from the dock as soon as possible.

Bloomberg was at the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox playoff game when he heard the news and rushed to Staten Island.

``People who were on the way home, all of a sudden, taken from us,'' said Bloomberg, who announced the deaths after touring the splintered wood, twisted steel and shattered glass aboard the ferry.

The ferry is among the city's most beloved institutions, providing free rides and offering a spectacular view of New York Harbor. The fleet of seven boats carry 70,000 commuters per day between Staten Island and lower Manhattan. The Andrew J. Barberi, commissioned in 1981, can carry up to 6,000 people.

The worst accident in the ferry's history happened in 1871, when a boiler exploded as a boat departed Manhattan. More than 125 people were killed, according to a New York Public Library Web site.