A rare blemish on the proud safety record of New York Harbour's iconic workhorses

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The Independent US

Sitting on deck watching the Statue of Liberty fade against a dazzling backdrop of the Manhattan skyline provides one of the most iconic New York experiences.

The Staten Island ferry service has long boasted an enduring reputation as a New York institution.

Free of charge and operating around the clock, the five-mile journey across New York Harbour is as popular among tourists as it is with commuters, carrying up to 70,000 people a day.

While the volume of passengers peaks during the evening rush hour, there is a steady stream of visitors armed with cameras mingling with workers travelling back and forth through the day.

Yesterday, this would have been the scene on board the orange-panelled Andrew J Barberi ferry as it made its way across the harbour at 3.20pm local time.

Last night's crash was poised to cast a shadow on the virtually unblemished record of the commuter service as one of the most serious accidents to befall one of its ferries.

While people have crossed the waters between Manhattan and Staten Island for hundreds of years, it was not until 1817 that the first steamboat came into service.

The popularity of the harbour crossing remained undiminished by the arrival nearly 30 years ago of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which connects the island with Brooklyn.

Today, there is a fleet of five ferries, which have been free of charge since 1997, operated by the New York City's Department of Transportation.

The Andrew J Barberi was named after a high-school football coach who was something of a local legend on Staten Island. Fellow celebrity islanders include the pop star Christina Aguilera and the novelist Paul Bowles.

The ferry, which travels at a rate of about 18 mph, has been transporting passengers between the two New York boroughs for the past 22 years. It can carry up to 6,000 passengers, including a 15-strong crew.