The ferry pilot, responsible for docking the vessel, fled the scene immediately after the crash Wednesday, went to his Staten Island home and attempted suicide, a police official said on the condition of anonymity. The pilot was rushed to the same hospital as many of the victims and underwent surgery.
The 310-foot ferry, carrying about 1,500 passengers, plowed into the enormous wooden pilings on the Staten Island end of its run from Manhattan, reducing the front of the mighty boat to a mass of shattered planks, broken glass and twisted steel.
Witnesses described a horrifying scene of passengers screaming and running for their lives as the vessel slammed into the wooden pilings along the side of the dock. The crash tore off victims' limbs and ripped open a 200-foot section of the boat, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Acosta.
"As we looked out the window, we saw that the boat was coming in skewed to the pier and within seconds of that we hit the pier and there was absolute panic," says one witness.
The crash happened on a windswept afternoon, with gusts over 40 mph and the water in New York Harbor very choppy.
"Everyone just jumped for their lives," rider Bob Carroll told TV station NY1. "It was like an absolute horror. ... The whole side of the boat looked like an opener on a can."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at least 10 people were killed and 34 injured, making it New York's worst mass-transit accident in nearly a century. Some bodies were accidentally counted twice, leading to an initial report by city officials that 14 people were dead.
"It's a terrible tragedy, people who were on the way home, all of a sudden, taken from us," Bloomberg said at a dockside news conference.
He said the ferry's crew will be interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol.
Firefighters picked their way through the debris aboard the ship, the Andrew J. Barberi, looking for victims, and Coast Guard divers searched the water. At least one body was recovered from the water.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, although Bloomberg suggested the heavy wind as a possibility. The National Transportation Safety Board convened an accident investigation team, which will look at the weather, among other possible factors.
"The ferry was coming too fast," said witness William Gonzalez, who lives in a nearby apartment complex. "They had no control to stop the boat."
Commuters were trapped in piles of debris aboard the 22-year-old ferry, and victims screamed and dove for cover as metal crunched into wood just before the start of the evening rush hour, tearing girders, splintering planks and ripping a huge hole in the right side of the three-level, bright-orange vessel, which has a capacity of 6,000 passengers.
"People who were sitting there as the ferry docked were hit by the pilings that came through the side of the boat," the mayor said. The pilings hit on the ferry's main deck, crashing into the windows that ordinarily afford a postcard view of the Statue of Liberty.
"There were numerous injuries like fractures and lacerations," said Fire Department spokeswoman Maria Lamberti. "There were a couple of people with amputations — legs and arms."
At Staten Island University Hospital, two people with amputations were among the victims, said spokeswoman Arleen Ryback. Others were suffering from back and spinal injuries, chest pains and hypothermia.
The ferry pilot was undergoing surgery at the same hospital, said Dr. Pietro Carpenito. The police source said the pilot had slit his wrists and shot himself with a pellet gun before someone at his home called 911 about an hour after the accident.
Three people were brought to St. Vincent's Hospital with massive trauma, including one amputee. Others there were also suffering from hypothermia, said spokesman Michael Fagan. The water temperature was about 62 degrees.
The five-mile trip between Staten Island and Manhattan normally takes 25 minutes. A free ride on the Staten Island Ferry is one of the city's most beloved attractions to New Yorkers and tourists alike, giving visitors a Hollywood-style view of lower Manhattan's skyscrapers.
The seven boats that make up the Staten Island Ferry fleet carry 70,000 commuters a day between Staten Island and lower Manhattan. The boats make 104 daily trips between the two boroughs. The Andrew J. Barberi travels at about 18 mph.
Service was suspended on all Staten Island ferries after the 3:20 p.m. accident, and was unlikely to resume until Thursday morning.
The mayor, who was attending the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox game with the American League pennant on the line, left Yankee Stadium to head to the scene. He boarded the ferry to assess the damage himself.
Steamboat ferries began operating between Manhattan and Staten Island in 1817. A railroad company ran the ferry from 1884 until 1905, when it was taken over by the city. It is now run by the city Transportation Department. Several accidents have occurred aboard Staten Island ferries over the years.
A boiler explosion on a ferry killed 104 passengers as it was preparing to leave Manhattan for Staten Island in 1871.
In 1997, a car plunged off the ferry as it was docking in Staten Island, causing minor injuries to the driver and a deckhand who was knocked overboard by the car.
In the summer of 1986, a man wielding a sword attacked riders on a ferry, killing two and injuring nine others before he was subdued by a retired police officer.
New York's worst subway accident occurred in 1918, when a train derailed in Brooklyn, killing 92 people.
A New York City subway crash in 1991 killed five people and injured more than 140. Federal investigators blamed the motorman's heavy drinking and lack of sleep.