CBSN

Ferry Probe Eyes Capt., Pilot

FERRY: Police officials survey a damaged pier at the Staten Island ferry terminal on Staten Island in New York, Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003. Authorities on Thursday are investigating whether a ferry pilot lost consciousness during a trip across a windy New York Harbor before the mighty vessel slammed into a pier, killing at least 10 people and injuring 42 others, Wednesday.
AP
The investigation into the deadly New York Harbor ferry crash is focusing on two men who were supposed to be on the job in the ship's bridge at the time of the accident: a pilot who may have been unconscious and a captain who may not have been there.

Wednesday's accident during the routine voyage from Battery Park to Staten Island ended in tragedy when the ferry smashed into a pier, killing 10 and injuring 65, including three who lost limbs.

Authorities are looking into whether the pilot's blood pressure medication caused him to slump at the controls and where the ship's skipper was at the time of the accident.

Meanwhile, The New York Post is reporting that the ferry pilot, Assistant Capt. Richard Smith, had once been punished for insubordination by being transferred to a job shipping dead bodies to the city's potter's field. Smith was also at the helm during a previous ferry collision in 1995 that injured 16 and was blamed on a mechanical failure.

The ferry, carrying around 1,500 passengers from Lower Manhattan to Staten Island, veered wildly off course Wednesday afternoon, crashing into a maintenance pier hundreds of feet from the slip where it normally docks at St. George Terminal.

The ferry was going at full speed as it hurtled into the pier, a federal investigator said Friday.

"It was not speeding up but…it was under what we'd say full speed at the time," National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Ellen Engleman told ABC television.

"What was happening is it was not slowing down," she said, adding the finding was based on evidence from the engine and other technical information. Some witnesses had said it seemed as if the boat could have been speeding up.

City Councilman Michael McMahon, who represents part of Staten Island, said Thursday that Smith collapsed at the controls and appeared to have lost consciousness because of "health problems and medication" — reportedly for a blood pressure problem.

"By the time the other captain could get control of the ship, it was too late," McMahon said.

A high-ranking law enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said investigators were probing what part prescription drugs might have played in the accident.

Early blood sample results from the Smith indicated alcohol was not a factor in the tragedy, the source said. Smith fled the scene and attempted suicide after the crash, and was hospitalized in critical condition.

Smith, 55, was a 15-year ferry veteran whose record gave no indication of a blood-pressure problem, said Department of Transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall. Smith remained hospitalized in critical condition.

According to The Post, the city once tried to fire Smith but instead had to transfer him to the a carrying corpses to the city's potter's field.

"I sent him to a place where he could do the most good, potter's field," former DOT commissioner Chris Lynn told the paper. "He didn't like to follow orders. He was very uncooperative."

Smith, the pilot, spoke with police Wednesday but was not interviewed in depth, Engleman said. Investigators will talk to him when it is "medically prudent," she said Friday.

Investigators confirmed that Smith also was at the helm of the Andrew J. Barberi when it crashed into the Staten Island dock in July 1995, injuring some passengers. That accident was blamed on a propeller failure.

An attorney representing Smith, Alan Abramson, spoke with the pilot's wife Thursday and issued a statement saying the family hope "people will not rush to judgment."

Investigators also were examining conflicting reports on the position of other crew members.

Sources tell CBS News the man actually in charge of the boat, Captain Michael Gansas, was not in the vessel's pilot house at the time of the collision. Captain Gansas denies the story.

The New York Daily News said investigators believe Gansas was below deck or at the other end of the ship when the crash occurred. New York City transportation officials say if it's true, Gansas broke protocol.

"Traditionally when a boat is approaching one of the terminals, the captain and the assistant captain are in the pilot house together," Weinshall said.

The NTSB, which is leading the probe, began interviewing deckhands and engineering crewmembers Thursday, as well as survivors of the crash and their families.

Blood samples were also taken from the rest of the crew; some results were already in and under review, Engleman said. She was unsure when they would be released.

Engleman said the NTSB investigation would consider other possible causes, such as the weather and engineering factors, and could take up to a year. It was windy at the time of the crash, but officials have said the ferries regularly operate in such conditions.

The dead, one woman and nine men, ranged from age 25 to 52, police said. The dead included an insurance lawyer who escaped from the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks.