NEW YORK – A mate aboard the ill-fated Staten Island Ferry (search) that smashed into a pier last month told investigators that the boat's pilot was "standing erect during the entire incident" and never slumped over the controls, city officials said yesterday.
City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo (search) said Robert Rush told probers that he alone was in the wheelhouse with the pilot, Assistant Captain Richard Smith (search), "and that nothing unusual transpired in the approximately 90 seconds before the crash."
Rush's statement contradicts the story Smith told cops shortly after the crash: that he slumped over the wheel before the crash because he hadn't taken his blood-pressure medication.
Cardozo, flanked by city Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall, dropped the bombshell during a break in a three-hour congressional hearing at the College of Staten Island. Smith and Captain Michael Gansas (search), who would have been the star witnesses, were no-shows - leaving empty chairs where they should have been sitting.
Upon impact, Smith "said, 'Oh, my goodness,' or something to that effect, and shortly after, Captain Gansas appeared in the wheelhouse and took control of the vessel," Cardozo said, recounting Rush's conversation with investigators.
The ferry Andrew J. Barberi careened full-throttle into a concrete pier Oct. 15 at Staten Island's St. George Terminal, killing 10 people and injuring 73.
Gansas and Smith initially gave statements to cops but have been tight-lipped since then.
Smith, 55, has been hospitalized after trying to kill himself by slashing his wrists and shooting himself with a pellet gun.
Smith's lawyers have said he has been unable to speak with investigators.
Tests indicate Smith was not under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs at the time of the crash. Smith's lawyer, Alan Abramson, did not return a call seeking comment.
Cardozo said Rush told probers he was sitting on a bench inside the pilothouse as the boat neared the end of its 25-minute voyage across the harbor and could only see Smith's back as he operated the ferry.
Cardozo said Rush did not notice that the boat had veered off-course and was heading toward a pier.
"Given the angle he was sitting, he could only see the sky and was glancing at [a newspaper] from time to time," he said.
Weinshall said Rush "could not see or feel anything out of the ordinary."
"He never said he saw him slumped over at the wheel," she said.
Asked why Rush was sitting in the pilothouse, Weinshall said he was not required to be a lookout as the ferry approached Staten Island.
"He was filling out a report about broken doors" on the boat, she said.
Rush's lawyer Michael Chalos said his client worked as the lookout on Manhattan-bound trips and was following rules.
"He was doing his job," he said. "But I can't comment on what the city said regarding my client."
Weinshall said Gansas had broken city regulations by not being in the pilothouse as the ferry neared the slip. "There is a violation. Captain Gansas was not in the pilothouse at the time," she said.
Lawyers for Gansas, 38, said he hasn't spoken with National Transportation Safety Board probers and city lawyers because he suffers from "acute stress disorder."
Gansas has been summoned to appear today in Brooklyn federal court but is not expected to show up.
Gansas' lawyer, Stephen Sheinbaum, did not return a call seeking comment. The feds are considering criminal charges against Gansas and 15 other crew members.