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N.Y. Ferry Pilot Admits Guilt in Deadly Crash

He says he 'was not in control' when the vessel rammed into a Staten Island dock, killing 11.

August 05, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The pilot of a Staten Island ferry that slammed into a concrete pier last year, killing 11 passengers, pleaded guilty to manslaughter Wednesday, saying that medication he had taken had caused him to lose consciousness while at the wheel.

"I was not in proper physical condition to safely operate the Staten Island ferry," Richard Smith told a U.S. District Court hearing in Brooklyn. He also admitted lying to the Coast Guard about his medical history.

"I ... was not in control of the ferry when it crashed," Smith said. "My conduct was reckless."

Smith, 55, fled from the ferry after it crashed and attempted suicide by slashing his wrists and shooting himself with a pellet gun.

In separate criminal complaints, federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged Patrick Ryan, director of operations for the city's Department of Transportation, with manslaughter for allegedly failing to ensure passenger safety and for allegedly not enforcing a requirement that two pilots be in the wheelhouse during docking. Ryan, 52, also was accused of obstructing the Coast Guard's investigation of the accident.

In addition, John Mauldin, the 45-year-old port captain of the ferry service, was charged with making false statements and obstructing the National Transportation Safety Board's inquiry. Michael Gansas, 39, the ferry's captain, was accused of lying to investigators when he claimed to have been in the wheelhouse with Smith when the crash occurred.

Smith's physician, William Tursi, 55, who had helped him fill out the medical clearance, was charged with making a false statement to the Coast Guard.

"This was a tragedy waiting to happen," said Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. "The crash had foreseeable causes -- causes that were ... ignored."

The ferry -- the Andrew J. Barberi -- was on a regular run from Manhattan to Staten Island Oct. 15 when it approached the pier at high speed. As the vessel neared a key buoy, prosecutors said, Smith should have started to slow down. Instead, the ferry was at cruising speed when it veered off course and slammed into the dock, which sliced through the starboard passenger deck. In addition to those killed, dozens of passengers were seriously injured.

Smith told U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman on Wednesday that he had been tired and suffering from back pain the day of the crash. The pilot said he had taken two medications -- tramadol for his back pain and an over-the-counter allergy drug -- both of which can cause drowsiness, dizziness and confusion.

In addition to lying about his back problems on his pilot recertification form in 2000, Smith and his physician concealed the fact that he was receiving medications for high blood pressure, insomnia, prostate problems and other ailments.

"I just didn't want the Coast Guard to know I was worried about my job," the ferry pilot said. "I thought it would jeopardize my chances."

Smith, who pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, could receive more than three years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines; at a news conference after the hearing, Mauskopf said she would press for a longer sentence because Smith had not agreed to testify as a government witness.

The prosecutor saved her harshest criticism for Ryan, who joined the ferry service in 1979 and rose from a deckhand to become its director of operations. She said he had a duty to see that every ferry was operated safely under the control of a capable licensed pilot.

"Marine pilots are human beings and can become suddenly ill or incapacitated for any number of reasons," Mauskopf said. "Safety and prudence require that a ferry system, particularly a ferry system of this size, prepare for that very real hazard. That responsibility fell squarely on Patrick Ryan, and he failed to carry out that duty."

Before the accident, Mauskopf said, some captains and assistant captains rode together in the wheelhouse in accordance with regulations, but the majority did not. "Ryan was well aware of the fact that practices and procedures aboard ferry vessels varied from captain to captain, vessel to vessel, shift to shift. Yet Ryan did nothing about it," the prosecutor said.

Soon after the charges were announced Wednesday, the city's corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, came to Ryan's defense. "We do not believe that captain Patrick Ryan was guilty of manslaughter ... as the indictment alleges," Cardozo said in a statement. "Patrick Ryan has been a respected and loyal employee who brought about many improvements to the ferry over his long history of service."

If convicted, Ryan could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and three years of supervised release.

Prosecutors said Gansas could receive five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervision, while Mauldin could face a maximum of 25 years, $500,000 in fines and three years of supervision. Tursi faces a five-year maximum sentence, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.

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