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Ferry Crash Is Yet Another Rude Awakening for Island

The deadly accident stirs questions in a quiet, tight-knit New York community that is still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks.

October 17, 2003|Josh Getlin and John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — As federal investigators questioned whether the assistant captain of a Staten Island ferry passed out before steering it into a concrete pier Wednesday, residents grappled Thursday with the latest catastrophe to befall the isolated, tranquil community five miles from Manhattan.

Members of the National Transportation Safety Board, which took over the investigation, said they were looking forward to interviewing Richard Smith, 55, who attempted suicide after the crash and remained hospitalized in critical condition.

They are also investigating the actions of Capt. Michael Gansas and other on-board employees, to see if they could have acted to prevent one of New York's deadliest ferry accidents, in which 10 people were killed and more than 60 were injured.

"We don't want to pass on stories or rumors," NTSB Chairman Ellen Engleman said Thursday, refusing to comment on reports that Smith had a medical condition related to blood pressure that caused him to black out just before the boat crashed. "We don't want to comment on secondhand information. We want to get it right."

But speculation about Smith, a Staten Island resident who had worked with the ferry for 15 years, arose Thursday in a community where people have known their neighbors for years and wouldn't dream of living anywhere else. They enjoy a world of quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods, grassy public parks and small, old-fashioned shops that contrast sharply with Manhattan's size, noise and congestion.

"We enjoy the calm here, and most people can't believe that our community is part of New York City," said Jill Hughes, riding the Staten Island ferry Thursday morning and vowing not to let the previous day's tragedy deter her. "But we've had our fair share of bad news here too."

The 10 victims ranged in age from 25 to 52 and included five Staten Island residents.

Staten Island lost 200 people in the World Trade Center attacks, many of them police officers and firefighters, and widows still embrace one another on the streets.

An oil refinery explosion in February killed two people and frightened thousands, who initially thought it was an act of terrorism.

Two undercover detectives were shot to death in March, and a series of racial attacks last month have led to angry demonstrations here by blacks.

"This is a small-town world with a small-town reputation, just five miles from Manhattan," said Toga R. Porte, a New York union official who came from Liberia and has lived on the island for 15 years. "But [you] can't keep the world out forever, because disasters happen to everyone. One day, the world rushes in and changes everything."

Hughes, a 27-year resident, was philosophical about her community as she rode the ferry Thursday after a visit to Manhattan. The pace of development has grown in Staten Island, bringing more cars, more people and aggravation, she said, and it is a reality that is hard for many residents to accept.

Although the island's population of 457,383 makes it the smallest of the city's five boroughs, it has registered the most growth in the last 10 years. For some, the island's periodic desire to secede from New York City remains a potent rallying cry. But incidents like the ferry crash are a reminder that physical isolation from the other four boroughs doesn't guarantee safety.

"I'd still rather live here than anywhere else, because it is so beautiful and quiet compared to the rest of New York," Hughes said. "But I agree, there is more fear, more awareness in Staten Island these days, and maybe that's a good thing, because it keeps us on our toes."

Outwardly, it was a normal morning for Hughes, who was heading to her job as an office manager. But she works for a neurosurgeon at Staten Island University Hospital, where Smith and others injured in the crash were taken, and she could imagine what lay ahead.

"I think we're looking at a pretty hectic day," she said grimly. "A lot of phone calls, a lot of concerns. This accident affected so many people."

Less than 24 hours after the collision, police barricades surrounded Smith's home in Staten Island's quiet Westerleigh neighborhood. Curtains were drawn in the corner, one-story Tudor structure, where the ferry captain has lived for 20 years. He is married and has four children.

Earlier, Councilman Michael McMahon, who attended an early-morning briefing on the accident, told reporters that "the assistant captain at the controls [Smith] collapsed. By the time the other captain could get control of the ship, it was too late." The crash, McMahon added, was related to "health problems and medication" for blood pressure.

Although Engleman declined to comment on those reports, Smith's longtime neighbors and friends vouched for his character and integrity.

When not at work piloting ferries, they said, he tended to the hyacinths, daffodils, flowering shrubs and azaleas in his garden, which was his pride and joy, along with his 1941 four-door Ford black sedan, which he sometimes entered in antique car shows.

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