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Ferry crashes in N.Y., killing 10

| Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003

NEW YORK -- A Staten Island ferry slammed into a pier as it was docking Wednesday, killing at least 10 people, tearing off victims' limbs and reducing the front of the mighty vessel to a tangled mass of wood, glass and steel. At least 42 people were injured.

The ferry pilot, responsible for docking the vessel, fled the scene immediately after the crash, went to his Staten Island home and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists and shooting himself with a pellet gun, a police official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. The pilot was rushed to the same hospital as many of the victims and underwent surgery.

After interviewing another crew member, authorities began investigating whether the pilot was asleep at the wheel as the boat approached land, a law-enforcement source told The AP.

The ferry pilot, identified as Richard Smith, was undergoing surgery at Staten Island University Hospital, said Dr. Pietro Carpenito. The police source said he was taken to the hospital after someone at his home called 911 about an hour after the accident. He bolted the scene so quickly that he left behind his keys and was forced to break into his home, the law-enforcement source said.

Police said they had obtained a sample of the pilot's blood for testing, and that he was being represented by an attorney. Telephone messages left at his home were not returned.

The 310-foot ferry, carrying about 1,500 passengers, plowed into the enormous wooden pilings on the Staten Island end of its run from Manhattan at 3:20 p.m., ripping a giant hole in the three-level, bright-orange vessel.

"There was a lady without legs, right in the middle of the boat," said ferry passenger Frank Corchado, 29. "She was screaming. You ever see anything like that?"

Corchado said it felt as if the ferry accelerated as it approached land, waking him as he napped on the trip home to Staten Island. He ran away from the front of the boat to safety but saw others who weren't as fortunate -- six people dead, including one who had been decapitated.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at least 10 people were killed and 42 injured, making it New York City's worst mass-transit accident in nearly a century. Some bodies accidentally were counted twice, leading to an initial report by city officials that 14 people were dead.

The crash happened on a windswept afternoon, with gusts exceeding 40 mph and very choppy water in New York Harbor.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known, although Bloomberg suggested the heavy wind as a possibility. The National Transportation Safety Board convened an accident-investigation team, which will examine weather conditions, among other possible factors.

"It's a terrible tragedy -- people who were on the way home, all of a sudden, taken from us," Bloomberg said at a dockside news conference yesterday.

He said the ferry's crew will be interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol.

Firefighters picked their way through the debris aboard the ship -- the Andrew J. Barberi. They looked for victims, and Coast Guard divers searched the water. At least one body was recovered from the water.

"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."

Commuters were trapped in piles of debris aboard the 22-year-old ferry. Victims screamed and dove for cover as metal crunched into wood just before the start of the evening-rush hour, tearing girders and splintering planks.

"People who were sitting there as the ferry docked were hit by the pilings that came through the side of the boat," the mayor said.

The pilings hit on the right side of the ferry's main deck, crashing into the windows that ordinarily afford a postcard view of the Statue of Liberty.

"There were numerous injuries like fractures and lacerations," said Fire Department spokeswoman Maria Lamberti. "There were a couple of people with amputations -- legs and arms."

Hospital officials said at least three victims had limbs severed in the accident, while others were suffering from massive trauma, back and spinal injuries, chest pains and hypothermia. The water temperature was about 62 degrees.

The seven boats that make up the Staten Island Ferry fleet carry 70,000 commuters a day between Staten Island and lower Manhattan. The boats make 104 daily trips between the two boroughs. The Andrew J. Barberi travels at about 18 mph. The boat holds 6,000 passengers.

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