Ferry pilot fled crash scene, drove home and tried to commit suicide

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The Independent US

Seconds before one of New York's famous Staten Island ferries slammed into a concrete maintenance pier on Wednesday, the captain yelled at his assistant, who was at the controls, to do something.

It was too late. A long grinding noise and deafening bang signalled that disaster had already struck.

Federal investigators warned yesterday that its inquiry into the collision could take a year to complete. Ten people were killed in the worst transportation accident in New York in a generation, and 34 more passengers, some of them tourists, suffered injuries, including loss of limbs. And last night three people were still listed as missing.

Meanwhile elements of what happened were already being told by witnesses and city officials. They told of the horror on the blood-washed passenger deck on the Andrew J Barberi. And of the confusion on the bridge.

The focus of the investigation will be the pilot Richard Smith, who fled the boat after it had been pushed to its normal docking slip by tugboats, and drove himself home where he attempted to commit suicide. Last night, he was reported to be in a critical condition at a Staten Island hospital.

One official described how the captain tried to intervene as the ferry headed towards the concrete pier, apparently travelling much too fast ­ estimates put the speed at 19mph ­ and at a strange angle. "He yells out to the pilot ­ 'Richard,' he yells to him ­ and he is unresponsive," the official said. "He is sitting down. He's unresponsive. The captain goes over and tries to take control of the ferry and it hits the pier."

It was difficult to grasp how a ship as slow and lumbering as a 310ft-long Staten Island ferry could cause so grisly a catastrophe.

The fleet of seven ungainly boats, painted a deep orange, are not just for commuting, moving 70,000 New Yorkers between the two boroughs every day. They are an institution and one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. On its 25-minute journey, the ferry passes the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. From its decks, the views of the harbour are free.

But on Wednesday, the interior of the Andrew J Barberi ferry was a mangled mess of steel and broken timber. The pier, and the wooden pilings that protect it, had ripped a gash the entire length of its lower passenger deck.

Passengers sitting in the orange plastic seats along its windows on the right were literally cut down. Some lost legs and arms. A man was decapitated. Another person was sliced in half.

"The scene was total chaos," said Frank Corchado, 29, from Staten Island. "There was a lady without legs, right in the middle of the boat," he said. "She was screaming. You ever see anything like that?"

Among those killed were nine men and one woman. One of the dead was pulled from the water.

"I saw a woman who had no head," said Sean Johnson, a construction worker who was on his way home from work. "I saw a lot of body parts laying around and people not moving."

Mr Johnson, a former American football player, ran for his life after the pier tore into the side of the passenger deck. "The two guys behind me, they didn't make it," he said. In the pandemonium, some passengers jumped overboard.

Ashraful Hassan, a New York resident of Bangladeshi origin, said: "Things like this happen in Bangladesh, where the equipment is old and broken down, but in America it should never have happened."

Mr Hassan was waiting for news about a friend who was on board the ferry.

When the ferry tied up at its slip, no one at first noticed the pilot had vanished. Reports said he drove at reckless speed to his Tudor-style home in a comfortable suburb of Staten Island. In his rush, he left his bag and keys, and had to break in. Once inside, he locked himself in his bathroom.

"I am in my bathroom, I slit my wrists," he reportedly told an emergency dispatcher on the telephone. Mr Smith, 53, also shot himself twice with a powerful pellet gun, into the heart and into the head.

When family members arrived minutes later, they found members of the ferry's crew already inside trying to break down the door into the bathroom. Mr Smith was being treated at St Vincent's Hospital on Staten Island ­ the same hospital that received most of the wounded. It was unclear last night when he would be well enough to talk to officials from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which had taken over the investigation.

Ellen Engleman, the board's chairwoman, refused to speculate on what might have happened to Mr Smith at the time of the accident. However, some sources said he may have failed to take prescription blood pressure medicine which had caused him to black out. One report suggested that on waking, he may have throttled the engines, instead of putting them in reverse.

A source close to the inquiry said the captain told investigators that Mr Smith "slumped forward" in a way that drove the boat toward the pier. "He could have hit the controls," said the official. "He could have pushed the throttle, he could have pulled the throttle."

At a briefing, Ms Engleman confirmed that the NTSB had received a "a lot of conflicting reports" about Mr Smith slumping at the wheel. But she added: "We don't want to pass on stories or rumours." She said the board would be studying the employment files of Mr Smith and the other crew members to see if there was a history of medical problems or possible drug or alcohol abuse.

Iris Weinshall, New York's transportation commissioner, said Mr Smith had been an employee of the ferry service for 15 years. "There's nothing in his record that we have seen so far that would indicate a problem," she said.

In the seconds before the impact, there was nothing to warnthe passengers that anything was wrong. But it was more obvious to those looking from the shore.

Evan Robinson, a musician waiting for a ferry on Staten Island, said he watched as the craft veered in a crazy manner. Two other witnesses said the ferry appeared to speed up when it should have slowed down for docking. "I looked on in disbelief," Mr Robinson said. "I said, 'Oh, my God, he's going to crash!'"

Some passengers criticised the lack of information after the collision. "It was chaos," said Francis Johnson, a tourist visiting New York from Florida. "The whole time we were not given any instructions."

Passengers on the higher two decks were blocked from climbing down the stairs to see what had happened. Oblivious to the horror, they complained to the crew that they were being delayed and wanted to be allowed off.

Arleen Ryback, a spokeswoman from Staten Island University Hospital, said that among the crash victims were two people with amputations. Others suffered from back and spinal injuries; one victim reported chest pains and one had hypothermia.

By 5am yesterday, the remaining four Staten Island ferries were sailing again.

At least one passenger admitted to being a little unsure about getting on board. Greg Ellis, who travels from Staten Island to Manhattan every day, said: "You're always thinking it could happen again if it happened one time."