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Ferry Was Traveling at 'Full Throttle'

October 18, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The Staten Island ferry that crashed into a pier, killing 10 passengers, was traveling at "full throttle" when it hit the structure, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday.

"It neither sped up or slowed down at the time of the accident," Ellen Engleman, chairwoman of the federal panel, announced at a briefing.

She also said the vessel's pilot had tested negative for alcohol and illegal drugs. The tests were based on blood and urine samples taken at a hospital where the pilot, Richard Smith, remained in critical but stable condition after a suicide attempt.

Engleman said no evidence of mechanical failures had been found aboard the ferry, which hit the pier at 16 or 17 mph.

"We have inspected the bridge controls, and nothing appears to be out of order," she said.

Engleman ruled out weather as a major factor for Wednesday's accident, which ripped apart one side of the ferry Andrew J. Barberi, trapping riders in the rubble.

Sixty-five people were injured, including three passengers who lost limbs.

"Certainly there was wind gusts but it was within normal operating conditions," Engleman told reporters. "Generally, there is no prohibition to operating under these wind conditions."

With the investigation increasingly focusing on human error, the safety board issued a subpoena to Smith, the assistant captain, in an effort to determine whether prescription drugs were involved in the crash.

Some of his medical records were being scrutinized.

Smith has not yet been interviewed by NTSB personnel, and questioning has not been scheduled because of his condition.

"When it is medically prudent, we will interview him," Engleman said.

Immediately after the accident, which occurred just before the evening's peak commuter time, Smith rushed from the ferry to his home on Staten Island and attempted suicide by cutting his wrists and shooting himself with a pellet gun.

The NTSB is trying to determine whether Smith may have passed out while operating the ship's controls because of blood pressure problems and whether prescription medication he was taking contributed to his physical condition.

"We are not going to speculate on medical conditions until we can specifically talk to physicians who are involved on actual medical records that will allow us proof," Engleman said. "There has been a lot of conjecture out there. We don't believe it is appropriate to discuss this until we know the facts."

She said that the ferry's captain, Michael Gansas, who tested negative for alcohol within two hours of the crash, has agreed to be interviewed by the NTSB on Tuesday.

Gansas and other crew members also have been tested for illegal drugs. The results are expected in several weeks.

The captain, like Smith, has emerged as a key figure in the federal inquiry.

A major question is whether Gansas was in the wheelhouse with Smith when the ferry approached the pier.

The New York City Department of Transportation, which operates the ferries, requires that two crew members be on the bridge at all times when the boat is moving.

Engleman was asked whether Smith was alone at the time of the accident.

"We don't know all the circumstances on the bridge," she said.

Investigators confirmed Friday that Smith was at the wheel of the same ferry when it crashed into a dock on Staten Island in 1995, injuring several passengers -- none seriously. The cause was determined to be propeller failure.

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