The pilot bolted the scene so quickly that he left behind his gear and his keys, then broke into his house where he slit his wrists and shot himself with a pellet gun, a law enforcement source told The Associated Press.
The pilot, identified by the source as Richard Smith, was in critical condition after surgery at St. Vincent's Hospital, a hospital spokesman said Wednesday night. It was the same hospital where 22 victims — including at least one amputee — were rushed after the 3:20 p.m. crash, the city's worst mass transit accident in 75 years.
"The scene was total chaos," said passenger Frank Corchado, 29, of Staten Island, recounting a tableau of horrific sights: a decapitated man, a legless woman, a fellow passenger bleeding from his eyes.
"There was a lady without legs, right in the middle of the boat," he said. "She was screaming. You ever see anything like that?"
The dead, one woman and nine men, ranged in age from 25 to 52, police said.
A co-worker of Smith told authorities the pilot had been asleep, slumped over the controls, the law enforcement source told the AP. He was being represented by an attorney, said police, who obtained a sample of his blood for testing. Telephone messages left at his home were not returned.
The ferry's crew was to be interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol, said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The crew members referred investigators to their union lawyers.
According to the New York Post, Smith has told investigators he failed to take medication for high blood pressure and passed out, accidentally shifting the ship's throttle to high.
The 300-foot craft was carrying an estimated 1,500 people, 36 of whom were treated at the scene or were immediately taken to hospitals. Six others walked away injured and went to hospitals later.
The boat hit a maintenance pier, hundreds of feet from the slips where the ferries normally dock to pick up and drop off passengers. The ferry was then backed up and moved over to one of the passenger slips, where rescue crews began their work, according to several New York media outlets.
Corchado said he tried to help as many people as possible get out. Witnesses said some jumped into the wind-swept 62-degree water and others ran as the pier chewed up the side of the boat.
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 ripped open a 200-foot section of the boat, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Acosta.
The victims were seated in the window seats on the front right side of the Andrew J. Barberi ferry. Some of the injured were pulled from the rubble by rescue workers; one of the dead was found in the water off Staten Island.
Evan Robinson, a musician waiting for a ferry on Staten Island on Wednesday, said he watched as the craft suddenly veered crazily. Two other witnesses said the ferry appeared to speed up when it should have slowed down for docking.
"I looked on in disbelief," Robinson said. "I said, 'Oh, my God, he's going to crash.'"
The cause of the crash officially remained unknown. The National Transportation Safety Board convened an accident investigation team to lead the onsite inquiry. The team was to examine weather, among other factors.
Winds were gusting up to 40 mph when the accident occurred.
"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."
Corchado said it felt as if the ferry accelerated as it approached land, waking him as he napped on the trip home. He ran away from the front of the boat to safety.
At Staten Island University Hospital, two victims with amputations were among those brought in from the ferry, said spokeswoman Arleen Ryback. Others were suffering from back and spinal injuries, one victim reported chest pains and one had hypothermia.
Ferry service was immediately shut down, forcing thousands of rush hour commuters to head for buses and taxis. Service resumed early Thursday with a boat departing from the St. George terminal just after 5 a.m.
One of those aboard the early morning boat, Greg Ellis, 48, said he was a little nervous.
"You're always thinking it could happen again if it happened one time," Ellis said.
"People who were on the way home, all of a sudden, taken from us," said Bloomberg, the mayor, who announced the deaths after touring the splintered wood, twisted steel and shattered glass aboard the ferry.
The ferry is among the city's most beloved institutions, providing free rides and offering a spectacular view of New York Harbor. It carries 70,000 commuters per day between Staten Island and lower Manhattan.
The accident appeared to be the worst mass transit mishap in the city since an Aug. 24, 1928 subway derailment that killed 16.