Staten Island ferry slams into dock; dozens hurt

Published 12:45 am Sunday, May 9, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) — A Staten Island ferry with a history of accidents, including a fatal wreck in 2003, malfunctioned as it approached its terminal Saturday and smashed into a pier with a jolt that tossed passengers to the deck and hurt as many as 37 people.

The accident happened at around 9:20 a.m. as the Andrew J. Barberi arrived at the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island, carrying 252 passengers and 18 crew.

Passenger Jason Watler, 30, of St. George, said he became alarmed when the ferry approached the shore faster than usual and ran toward the back of the boat.

“It was not slowing down,” he said. “He was going too fast.”

Then, he heard a “a real big boom.”

“I stumbled a little bit,” he said. “People were screaming. People were crying.”

The accident appeared to be the result of a mechanical failure, New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said.

The ferry’s throttle failed to engage as it prepared to dock, she said, meaning the crew was unable to use the engines to apply reverse thrust and slow down. The cause of the malfunction is still unknown, she said. The approximately 3,000-ton, 310-foot-long ferry was moving at about 5 knots, or 5.8 miles per hour, when it hit.

Coast Guard officials said the ferry suffered serious damage to its ramps and gouges in the decks above the waterline. Ramps on the pier were also damaged. The Department of Transportation described the damage to the vessel and terminal and slip as minor and said the Barberi would be taken out of service.

Fire Department spokesman James Long said a total of 37 passengers were treated. He said 35 were taken to hospitals, but none had life-threatening injuries. Of those, 34 were treated and released and one remained hospitalized for further evaluation, Long said.

Two police officers providing ferry security were among the injured, officials said, but no crew members were hurt.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team to investigate the ferry accident.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said routine drug and alcohol tests were conducted on crew members. The alcohol tests came back negative; the drug tests were still being evaluated.

“Throughout the next few days our experts will work on scene to gather the details of the accident,” said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt at a press conference late Saturday.

Sumwalt said investigators will do a 72-hour history of the crew. Investigators also will look at crew interaction, the vessel’s navigation and propulsion systems, and its maintenance and inspection records.

“Our mission is to find out not just what happened but to find out why it happened so that we can make recommendations to prevent the type of recurrence in the future,” Sumwalt said.

The Andrew Barberi was also involved in a 2003 wreck that killed 11 people. That accident occurred when the pilot, suffering from extreme fatigue and on painkillers, passed out at the wheel and the boat hit the terminal in St. George at full speed. The ferry returned to service after a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation.

The pilot pleaded guilty to negligent manslaughter and lying to investigators. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The city ferry director was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to negligent manslaughter and admitting he failed to implement or enforce a rule requiring two pilots during docking.

Capt. James DeSimone, the ferry’s chief operating officer, said it was unlikely that the mechanical failure had anything to do with damage suffered by the vessel in the 2003 accident and that it had passed all the required inspections so that it could be placed back in service.

“There’s no relationship whatsoever” between the two incidents, he said. “The two of them shouldn’t be spoken of in the same breath.”

On July 1, 2009, a different ferry lost power and slammed into a pier at the St. George terminal, causing more than a dozen minor injuries among passengers. That accident was blamed on the failure of a transformer, which regulates power to the main propulsion engine.

The ferry runs across New York harbor between Manhattan and Staten Island. Ferries landing at the terminal approach fairly quickly, then slow by putting the engines in reverse. The boat coasts into a U-shaped slip and workers extend large ramps that allow passengers to exit. Most passengers assemble at the front as the ferry arrives.

DeSimone said Barberi pilot Donald Russell has 15 years experience. He said Russell has worked on the Barberi for five years and was promoted from assistant captain to captain in March.

The crash might have been worse if it had happened during rush hour rather than on a sleepy Saturday morning. The Barberi, an orange behemoth of a boat, can carry up to 6,000 passengers.

The Barberi has had other problems since being put into service in 1981, including corrosion and a roach infestation. On its maiden voyage, it suffered a temporary loss of engine power and drifted into some mud near Governor’s Island.

The vessel passed annual inspections in 2009 and a quarterly inspection in April, according to the Department of Transportation.

In Saturday’s accident, Sadik-Khan said, the crew discovered the mechanical problem in time to alert passengers to brace for a hard landing and move back, although it is unclear how many heard or understood the warning.

Dwayne Forrest, 47, of Knoxville, Tenn., was sitting in the front with of the ferry with his wife, Sheila. He said he heard a warning, buzzers sounded and then someone said “Red! Red! Red!” and about 15 seconds later, the boat hit.

“It was a hard jolt. … Luckily we were sitting down,” he said.

The Forrests were in New York City on vacation and were told they could get a better look at the Statue of Liberty if they rode the ferry.

DeSimone said the captain of the Barberi used a danger signal — multiple blasts on the ship’s whistle — to warn of an emergency.

The “Red!” heard by passengers was a signal to the crew from the captain of an imminent emergency situation, he said.

Alex Gonzalez, 36, of the Bronx, said the ferry appeared to speed up, rather than slow, as it approached the dock. He said the impact threw a woman and child standing near him about 10 feet.

“It was the scariest thing of my life,” he said.

Service on the ferry line was suspended after the accident, then restored by late morning.

The ferry itself was dislodged from the dock at the terminal about five hours after the crash, with the help of a tugboat, and taken to another nearby pier area.

The crash will be investigated, Gov. David Paterson said at the scene. He said it was important for him to be on site after the events of the past week had raised tensions in New York City.

“That’s the byproduct of harmful acts, and it causes people to be worried about things like transportation,” Paterson said.