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U.S. Takes Over Inquiry in Fatal Ferry Crash

Prosecutors vow to seek 'complete answers.' The captain and his aide have not discussed the N.Y. incident, in which 10 people died.

November 16, 2003|Michael Weissenstein | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors Friday took control of the investigation of the Staten Island ferry crash, promising to seek "complete answers" in a case that has been stymied by the silence of the captain and his assistant.

U.S. Atty. Roslynn Mauskopf of Brooklyn and Staten Island announced that she would take over the probe from Dist. Atty. William Murphy. Ten people were killed Oct. 15 when a ferry crashed into a pier.

"We are committed ... to using the powerful tools available to us under federal law to get full and complete answers," Mauskopf said.

Authorities have said Capt. Michael Gansas and Assistant Capt. Richard Smith could face federal charges of "being a seaman by whose misconduct a person died" -- an obscure law that carries up to 10 years in prison.

The comparable charge available under state law, criminally negligent homicide, has a four-year maximum.

The rules governing immunity of witnesses and grand jury testimony also favor a federal investigation, Mauskopf said.

The announcement came a day after Smith, who was at the controls of the boat, was released from the hospital. He had attempted suicide.

Smith's lawyers, Alan Abramson and Joel Cohen, called the decision to make the criminal case federal "a significant step forward," adding that they expect an "ongoing dialogue" with prosecutors. A call to an attorney for Gansas was not immediately returned.

The National Transportation Safety Board, New York Police Department, Coast Guard and city Transportation Department are investigating as well and have focused on the actions of both men.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said Friday that agency investigators have not contacted Smith or his attorneys, but they hope to talk to the pilot in a matter of days.

The city Department of Transportation on Friday formally charged Smith with failing to cooperate with the NTSB and city investigators. An informal hearing on the accusation has been set for Nov. 28.

In conversations with emergency officials in the hours after the accident, Smith and Gansas indicated that Smith had slumped over the controls and that Gansas had tried unsuccessfully to pull him away and take over.

But one of the ship's mates said that Smith was erect behind the controls in the minutes leading up to the crash and that Gansas was not with him in the wheelhouse, an apparent violation of city rules.

Smith and Gansas have not spoken with investigators. Gansas refused to answer questions at a hearing, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

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