NEW YORK – A Staten Island Ferry (search) pilot pleaded guilty Wednesday to manslaughter in the 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. A higher-up in the ferry operation also was charged with manslaughter.
"I was not in proper physical condition to safely operate the Staten Island Ferry," Richard Smith (search) said 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.
A federal indictment returned Wednesday also accused director of ferry operations Patrick Ryan (search) with 11 counts of manslaughter, along with obstruction of justice and lying to the Coast Guard after the crash. Ryan was cited for his alleged failure to provide the ferry's captains and assistant captains with the proper procedures for operating the crafts, and for subsequently claiming he had done so.
The city's corporation counsel, Michael A. Cardozo, defended Ryan, calling him "a respected and loyal employee who brought about many improvements to the ferry over his long history of service."
Ferry Capt. Michael Gansas (search) was charged with making a false statement to the Coast Guard, while the same indictment charged port captain John Mauldin with obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to the National Transportation Safety Board (search).
Gansas violated procedure by his absence from the wheelhouse during docking, when Smith, the assistant captain who was piloting the ferry, lost control. The indictment said Gansas falsely told investigators that he was on the scene in the wheelhouse.
Gansas initially refused to cooperate with the investigation, saying he was suffering from posttraumatic 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 currently under psychiatric care and taking anti-depression medication.
The guilty plea and indictments followed a 10-month investigation into the Staten Island ferry crash, when a routine trip across New York Harbor turned into nightmare of shattered glass and twisted metal as the boat slammed into a concrete maintenance pier on Staten Island.
The crash revealed serious problems with safety rules on the ferries. Insiders leveled allegations of problems ranging from overtime abuse and on-duty crew card games to unheeded safety warnings and retaliatory beatings. Since then, the city has revamped its procedures and requires three crew members instead of two are required to be in the wheelhouse when the ferry is approaching the dock.
Commuter Laura Diaz, 41, who was severely injured in the crash, settled with the city last month for $1.125 million, the largest deal reached so far.
The ferry fleet shuttles about 70,000 people a day between Staten Island and Manhattan, a 5.2-mile trip that takes about 25 minutes.