NEW YORK – Just before 3 p.m., the Andrew J. Barberi (search) docked at a terminal at the tip of Manhattan to drop off its passengers, while Assistant Capt. Richard Smith took up his position in the ship's pilot house.
As he had done hundreds of times before, Smith readied the 300-foot, bright-orange ferry for its return trip across New York Harbor to Staten Island (search).
Less than 25 minutes later — with Smith, by one account, slumped over the helm — the ferry slammed into a maintenance pier on the Staten Island side, killing 10 passengers and injuring more than 60.
In the chaos that followed, Smith, 55, fled the scene and drove home, where he shot himself with a pellet gun and slashed his wrists, police said.
Exactly what happened at the end of the trip across New York Harbor is now the subject of a federal investigation.
On Wednesday, Smith had reported for work at 1:30 p.m., and along with Capt. Mike Gansas, he made three trips across the harbor — a picturesque if routine journey for the 15-year veteran of the Staten Island Ferry (search) service. The five-mile, 25-minute trip affords passengers postcard views of the Statue of Liberty and the skyscrapers at the tip of Manhattan.
The weather Wednesday afternoon was unusually windy, with gusts of up to 45 mph, but ferry pilots are used to operating in far worse weather. About 1,500 people had boarded the 22-year-old ship, many leaving work early to catch the Yankees-Red Sox game on television.
The 3 o'clock ferry was at about one-third capacity, and the passengers included office workers trying to make it home before rush hour and construction workers who start their work days early. On the top deck, tourists from Texas to Australia huddled in the chilly wind, taking in the sights.
By usual ferry practice, Smith would have been joined in the pilot house during the crossing by Gansas and a deckhand. Under city procedures, a ferry's captain and assistant captain are typically in the pilot house as the vessel enters port, although that is not a Coast Guard rule. And exactly what happened on Wednesday is not yet clear.
As the ferry approached the St. George Terminal (search) on Staten Island, passengers lined up at the front of the ship to get a head start while disembarking. But the boat did not slow as it approached the terminal.
"When we were a few hundred yards away, some guy starts yelling, `We're going to hit it!"' said Thomas Berg, 11.
Some passengers ran to the back of the ship or to one of the two upper decks as the vessel approached. Others grabbed life preservers. Still others held on to anything solid they could find or clung to whoever was next to them.
"It never slowed down," said Jim Resnowski, 27, a tourist from Dallas. "It was going full speed until it hit."
Investigators said Gansas told them he found Smith slumped over the controls. He said he tried to take control of the 3,335-ton vessel but could not steer clear of a concrete maintenance pier several hundred yards from the passenger pier.
As the vessel hit, pilings sliced into the side of the steel ship, creating a horrific grinding sound as it tore through the hull at the first-floor window line.
Many passengers on the upper deck simply lost their footing, but those below deck were thrown about. The vessel continued on for several seconds, tearing a 250-foot-long gash that extended eight feet into the boat.
"We hit and people started screaming," said Bob Carroll, a 52-year-old lawyer. "I looked to my right and the whole side of the boat starts to disappear."
Passengers described seeing decapitated bodies, torn limbs, people piled atop one another and under debris. Some feared the boat would sink, but the damage was above the water line, and the ferry did not take on water.
"There was a lady without legs, right in the middle of the boat," said Frank Corchado, a 29-year-old elevator mechanic. "She was screaming. You ever see anything like that?"
The crew eventually steered the boat into the passenger dock, and firefighters and police officers arrived quickly.
Meanwhile, Smith slipped out amidst the chaos and went home. Police said that he attempted suicide and was taken to a hospital, where he was in critical condition.