"Guilty, your honor," Richard Smith said evenly in U.S. District Court in an agreement with prosecutors. He acknowledged that his misconduct and inattention to duty caused the deaths last October.
Smith also admitted that he had taken Tramadol, a back pain drug, and Tylenol PM two drugs with side effects that can include drowsiness. They were among five drugs he was taking for conditions including high blood pressure in the month before the accident last October. Both were in his system at the time of the crash.
"You were negligent in the same way, for example, that someone who drives a car while intoxicated is negligent," U.S. District Judge Edward Korman said.
Smith, 55, appearing haggard and drawn, said he didn't acknowledge his health problems because he was afraid of losing his job. He had lied on an August 2000 application for his license, where word of his high blood pressure and use of prescription drugs could have led to a rejection.
"I didn't want the Coast Guard to know, your honor," said Smith, who is currently under psychiatric care and taking anti-depression medication.
The manslaughter counts are part of a separate federal code dealing with maritime law. Smith could face up to 10 years in prison on each count, although his plea agreement was expected to provide him with a more lenient sentence.
The ferry, the Andrew J. Barberi, slammed into a concrete maintenance pier on Staten Island on Oct. 15, tearing open a 250-foot-long gash extending 8 feet into its hull. The accident led to billions of dollars in civil claims.
Smith, who was at the helm, fled after the wreck and tried to commit suicide, slashing his wrists and shooting himself with a pellet gun.
Prosecutors were still expected to unseal an 11-count manslaughter indictment against the ferry's captain, Michael Gansas. He violated procedure by his absence from the wheelhouse during docking, when Smith lost control of the ferry.
Gansas initially refused to cooperate with the investigation, saying he was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, and was fired. He ended up meeting with federal prosecutors in January.
Since the crash, the city has revamped its procedures and now requires crew members to report to their stations as their ferry nears shore and alert supervisors by radio that they are in position. Three crew members instead of two are required to be in the wheelhouse.
The city ferry fleet shuttles about 70,000 people a day between Staten Island and Manhattan, a 5.2-mile trip across New York Harbor that takes about 25 minutes.