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10 Die, 34 Hurt in New York Ferry Crash

A boat carrying 1,500 commuters, tourists and others smashes into a pier on Staten Island.

October 16, 2003|Josh Getlin and John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — A crowded commuter ferry heading from Manhattan to Staten Island crashed as it was docking Wednesday, killing 10 people and injuring at least 34, many seriously, officials said.

Although officials declined to speculate on the cause, eyewitnesses said the Andrew J. Barberi was traveling too fast and hit the pier amid heavy, gusting winds. It was New York's deadliest ferry accident in 132 years.

Passengers and officials described a scene of chaos and carnage in which some people on board were killed instantly, others suffered with severed limbs, and all endured a 20-minute wait while crew members docked the damaged vessel.

Within minutes of the crash, one of the ferry's two captains fled to his home on Staten Island, where he attempted suicide, police said. The captain was taken by police to a hospital, where he was reported to be in critical condition and was being treated for multiple injuries, hospital officials said.

"We had a terrible accident here, and people who were on the way home all of a sudden have been taken from us," said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, standing yards from the dock where the Staten Island ferry collided with a concrete pier and rows of tall wooden pilings. "There were clearly heavy winds out there today. But whether or not they contributed to the accident is much too soon to tell."

The mayor said the National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team to the site to investigate the accident, and cautioned that it could be days or weeks before the cause was found. But he stressed: "There is no indication this is anything other than a tragic accident. There's no reason whatsoever to believe this was done by any outside factor."

The ferry line, run by the city, is one of New York's most popular tourist attractions. It carries an estimated 70,000 people on five vessels each day between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island, passing by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The free, five-mile ride on the bright orange boats is normally a peaceful, leisurely experience. But Wednesday's incident -- which happened at 3:20 p.m., as rush hour began -- sparked panic and confusion among the boat's 1,500 passengers.

Many of those aboard -- commuters, students, tourists and others -- had gathered toward the front of the ferry on the lowest of its three levels, ready to disembark, as it attempted to dock at the St. George terminal.

There was no warning that the boat was in any danger, many said. Only a sudden, deafening sound -- like an explosion -- and then chaos.

Some passengers raced to the rear of the boat seconds after the impact. Others began screaming and searched for life jackets. But passengers who had been sitting along the right side of the boat -- where the impact took place -- were unable to escape, authorities said.

As the ferry slammed into the pilings, they ripped a 40-yard-long gash in the 310-foot boat. Some passengers were crushed to death, while others lost limbs and suffered severe lacerations, fire officials said. A few scrambled to the edge of the boat and jumped off. One body was later recovered from the water, Fire Department officials said.

"We all thought at first the crash was terrorism," Peter Reynolds, a passenger, told reporters. "But even if it wasn't, it scared a lot of people into thinking they were about to die."

Passengers spent nearly 20 minutes on the boat after the crash, until crew members managed to turn the ferry around and guide it into a dock. Many complained that there were no announcements over the boat's loudspeaker system giving them any clue about what had happened, or what they should do.

"I heard a big, loud crash and explosion," passenger Paul Wiedemann told a local television crew, "and originally I thought it was a bomb. Then I saw pieces of the boat falling around us, with wood splintering everywhere, and we ran. We saw people trapped under the rubble and tried to help them, but they were unconscious."

Normally, during the last seconds of a ferry ride, the boat drifts slowly into its docking space and bumps gently up against the pilings. But longtime commuters said they sensed that something was wrong when the ferry continued to cruise at or near its maximum speed of 18 mph as it approached the dock.

"You had a sense that the boat was traveling much too fast, that something was wrong," said passenger Bob Carroll. "And as the pilings began ripping through the boat, everybody tried to outrace them and ran toward the back, to get to safety. But some people clearly weren't going to be able to make it."

The New York Times reported in today's editions that the ferry missed its slip at the terminal and hit a maintenance pier.

For Florida tourist Lori Froehlich, who was visiting relatives on Staten Island, the crash was a nightmare. She had expected a calm, peaceful ride from Lower Manhattan. When the accident took place, she tried to catch up with her frightened 9-year-old son, who was caught up in a crowd surging toward the back of the boat.

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