NEW YORK – The death toll in the horrific crash of a Staten Island ferry (search) remained at 10 Thursday after a woman rescuers had been searching for in the water near the ferry docks was found alive.
The Staten Island woman, who was due home Wednesday night, spent the night at a friend's home in Brooklyn, police said Thursday afternoon. Earlier, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said investigators feared she would become the 11th victim of the city's worst mass transit accident in at least a generation.
Hospital officials said more than 60 victims were treated after the crash Wednesday and eight remain in critical condition Thursday.
Police investigating the accident were looking into whether the pilot was asleep when the boat plowed into a pier.
The pilot, identified as Richard Smith (search), fled the scene so quickly that he left behind his gear and his keys, then broke into his own house where he slit his wrists and shot himself in the chest with a pellet gun in a failed suicide attempt, a law enforcement source told The Associated Press.
National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Ellen Engleman said Thursday they are retracing how Smith and other crew members spent the 72 hours prior to the fateful ferry trip, a spokeswoman said Thursday afternoon.
Smith told investigators he had failed to take his medication for high blood pressure and as a result lost consciousness, the New York Post reported. When he came to, he said, he accidentally shifted the throttle into high speed, sending the massive vessel crashing into wooden pilings at the St. George pier, police sources said.
"Oh [expletive]," the pilot shouted before shutting down his engine, an eyewitness told police, a source told the Post.
Smith was in critical condition after surgery at St. Vincent's Staten Island Hospital (search), a hospital spokesman said Wednesday night. It was the same hospital where 22 victims were rushed after the 3:20 p.m. crash. Other victims were taken to Staten Island University Hospital.
"The scene was total chaos," said passenger Frank Corchado, 29, of Staten Island, recounting a tableau of horrific sights: a decapitated man, a legless woman, a fellow passenger bleeding from his eyes.
"There was a lady without legs, right in the middle of the boat," he said. "She was screaming. You ever see anything like that?"
Smith was being represented by an attorney, said police, who obtained a sample of his blood for testing. Telephone messages left at his home were not returned.
Neighbors spoke up on his behalf Thursday and his family appealed to the public not to rush to judgment.
Smith was described as a caring family man who is likely devastated by the accident.
Stella LoBianco, who has lived next door to Smith and his wife for about 20 years, recalled how the father of four took up gardening after his children had grown — even filling in a backyard pool to grow a larger garden.
The ferry captain, Michael Gansas, said he tried to grab the controls just before the crash. But the Post reported that Smith and one of the ferry's mates, Robert Rush, said Gansas was not nearby, a police source said.
The ferry's crew was to be interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol, said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The crew members referred investigators to their union lawyers.
The 300-foot craft was carrying an estimated 1,500 people, 36 of whom were treated at the scene or were immediately taken to hospitals. Six others walked away injured and went to hospitals later.
Asked at a Thursday morning news briefing about reports that the pilot had passed out or fallen asleep, Engleman said her agency had received "a lot of conflicting reports as far as that. We don't want to pass on stories or rumors."
Engleman said the NTSB would be taking over the investigation and planned to look into human factors, engineering factors, deck operations and weather conditions. Winds were peaking at 40 mph when the accident occurred.
She added the boat, which had suffered "very dramatic" damage, was being secured and would be moved from the dock as soon as possible.
The NTSB probe could take a year to complete.
'The Ferry Was Coming Too Fast'
The ferry hit a maintenance pier, hundreds of feet from the slips where the boats normally dock to pick up and drop off passengers. It was then backed up and moved over to one of the passenger slips, where rescue crews began their work, according to several New York media outlets.
Corchado said he tried to help as many people as possible get out. Witnesses said some jumped into the wind-swept 62-degree water and others ran as the pier chewed up the side of the boat.
"Most of the people who died were older people, I believe, who couldn't move or didn't have enough time to get out of the way," Corchado said.
The victims were seated in the window seats on the front right side of the Andrew J. Barberi ferry. Some of the injured were pulled from the rubble by rescue workers; one of the dead was found in the water off Staten Island.
Evan Robinson, a musician waiting for a ferry on Staten Island on Wednesday, said he watched as the craft suddenly veered crazily. Two other witnesses said the ferry appeared to speed up when it should have slowed down for docking.
"I looked on in disbelief," Robinson said. "I said, 'Oh, my God, he's going to crash.'"
"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."
Corchado said it felt as if the ferry accelerated as it approached land, waking him as he napped on the trip home. He ran away from the front of the boat to safety.
"My soul's killing me a little bit," he said.
At Staten Island University Hospital, two victims with amputations were among those brought in from the ferry, said spokeswoman Arleen Ryback. Others were suffering from back and spinal injuries, one victim reported chest pains and one had hypothermia.
Ferry service was immediately shut down, forcing thousands of rush hour commuters to head for buses and taxis. Service resumed early Thursday with a boat departing from the St. George terminal just after 5 a.m.
One of those aboard the early morning boat, Greg Ellis, 48, said he was a little nervous.
"You're always thinking it could happen again if it happened one time," Ellis said.
The tragedy occurred on a day when the city was focused on the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox playoff game. Bloomberg was at the game when he heard the news and rushed to Staten Island.
"People who were on the way home, all of a sudden, taken from us," said Bloomberg, who announced the deaths after touring the splintered wood, twisted steel and shattered glass aboard the ferry.
The ferry is among the city's most beloved institutions, providing free rides and offering a spectacular view of New York Harbor. It carries 70,000 commuters per day between Staten Island and lower Manhattan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.