- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) — A Staten Island ferry slammed into a pier as it was docking yesterday, killing at least 10 persons, tearing off victims’ limbs and sending passengers into the water, officials said.

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 AP.

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, reducing the front of the mighty boat to a mass of shattered planks, broken glass and twisted steel.

“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?”

Mr. 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 six others who weren’t as lucky, including one who had been decapitated.

At least 10 persons were killed and 34 injured, said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, making it New York’s worst mass-transit accident in nearly a century. Some bodies were accidentally counted twice, leading to an initial report by city officials that 14 persons were dead.

Firefighters picked their way through the debris aboard the ship, the Andrew J. Barberi, in a search of victims, and Coast Guard divers searched the water. At least one body was recovered from the water.

The crash happened on a windswept afternoon, with gusts of more than 40 mph and the water in New York Harbor choppy.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known, though Mr. Bloomberg suggested the heavy wind as a possibility. The National Transportation Safety Board convened an accident-investigation team that will look at the weather among other suspected factors.

“It’s a terrible tragedy, people who were on the way home, all of a sudden, taken from us,” the mayor said at a dockside news conference.

The ferry’s crew will be interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol, Mr. Bloomberg said.

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

“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.”

The pilings hit on the ferry’s main deck, crashing into windows that ordinarily afford a postcard view of the Statue of Liberty. The free five-mile ride on the Staten Island ferry is one of the city’s most beloved attractions to New Yorkers and tourists alike, taking visitors past the Statue of Liberty and giving a spectacular view of Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers.

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