- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) — A Staten Island Ferry assistant captain pleaded guilty yesterday to manslaughter in the grisly crash that killed 11 commuters last October, acknowledging that he passed out at the ship’s controls after arriving at work with medication in his system.

“I was not in proper physical condition to safely operate the Staten Island Ferry,” Richard Smith said evenly at his Brooklyn federal court hearing, entering his plea under an agreement reached with prosecutors. “I lost consciousness and was not in control of the ferry when it crashed.

“My conduct was reckless,” said Smith, acknowledging that his inattention to duty caused the deaths and dozens of injuries.

The ferry, the Andrew J. Barberi, crashed as it was docking on a run from Manhattan, tearing a 250-foot-long gash that ran 8 feet deep into its hull.

The ferry’s captain, Michael Gansas, was charged with lying to authorities. He violated procedure by being absent from the wheelhouse during docking, when Smith lost control of the ferry.

Mr. Gansas initially refused to cooperate with the investigation, saying he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and was fired. He ended up meeting with federal prosecutors in January.

Smith admitted that he had taken Tramadol, a back-pain drug, and Tylenol PM — two drugs with side effects that can include drowsiness. The two were among five drugs he was taking for conditions including high blood pressure in the month before the accident. Both were in his system at the time of the crash.

“You were negligent in the same way, for example, that someone who drives a car while intoxicated is negligent,” U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman told him in accepting the plea.

Smith fled after the wreck and tried to commit suicide, slashing his wrists and shooting himself with a pellet gun.

The manslaughter counts are part of a separate federal code dealing with maritime law. Smith could face up to 10 years in prison on each count, although his plea agreement was expected to provide him with a more lenient sentence.

Smith also acknowledged that he lied about his medical history to the Coast Guard when applying for a pilot’s license three years before the crash. That charge could carry up to five years behind bars.

Smith, 55, appearing haggard and drawn, said he didn’t acknowledge his high blood pressure and use of prescription drugs because he was afraid of losing his job.

“I didn’t want the Coast Guard to know, your honor,” said Smith, who is under psychiatric care and taking antidepressant medication.

The guilty plea came after a 10-month investigation into the Staten Island Ferry crash, when a routine trip across New York Harbor turned into a nightmare of shattered glass and twisted metal as the boat slammed into a concrete maintenance pier on Staten Island.

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