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NYC Slammed For Fatal Ferry Crash

A federal safety board on Tuesday sharply criticized New York City and the Coast Guard in the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash that killed 11 passengers, saying tougher medical screening of ferry captains and safer operating procedures were needed.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the city's oversight was partly to blame for the crash, but stopped short of saying the Coast Guard's current system directly caused the deadly Oct. 15, 2003, accident.

NTSB chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners said the crash "was a wake-up call to all modes of transportation," and said closer review was needed of the effect of certain prescription drugs on transportation workers.

The recommendations for the Coast Guard could greatly expand the amount of work the agency does nationwide to check the health of boat pilots responsible for large numbers of water-crossing commuters.

Ferry services in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington state have a combined annual ridership of some 53.5 million people.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet said the proposed changes would require "fairly intense efforts." She said, "It's too soon to say what we would possibly do in response."

New York City's commissioner of transportation, Iris Weinshall, said the city had already adopted some of the recommendations - but not all - for accident-averting technology in ferry wheelhouses.

Weinshall said the agency was hiring dozens of additional staff to improve performance, and crafting a new system-wide safety program with help from outside experts.

The Staten Island ferries have an annual ridership of 19 million, and the crash of the Andrew J. Barberi was one of the worst mass-transit disasters in New York history. Eleven people died and more than 70 hurt were hurt when the ferry's pilot apparently blacked out and the big boat slammed into a maintenance pier.

Ferry pilot Richard Smith has pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, acknowledging he neglected his duties by taking medications that made him lose consciousness at the helm. Several others were charged in connection with the crash.

In its report, the NTSB criticized "the failure of the New York City Department of Transportation to implement and oversee safe, effective operating procedures."

Better emergency drills, training of ship crews and safety management systems are needed, the board said. It recommended that New York City use GPS and electronic mapping technology to alert pilots who may veer off course. Two pilots should be in the wheelhouse at crucial times like docking, the board said.

And NTSB noted that while ferry captains are required to undergo physicals every year, the results only have to be reported to the Coast Guard every five years for certification.

The board recommended that the Coast Guard revise its procedures so that the results of physicals are reported each year. The Coast Guard should also communicate better with doctors doing the physicals as to specific occupational skills that are needed for the job, the board said.

By Devlin Barrett

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