A former director of the Staten Island ferry (search) pleaded guilty to negligent manslaughter in a 2003 crash that killed 11 passengers, one of the worst mass-transit disasters in city history.

Patrick Ryan (search) admitted in court Friday that he chose not to implement or enforce a rule requiring ferries be operated by two pilots whenever at sea. The Andrew J. Barberi crashed on Oct. 15, 2003 after a lone skipper in the pilot house, Richard Smith, passed out.

Ryan faces a maximum sentence of one year in prison.

Ryan, 53, the city's chief of ferry operations and the top-ranking official charged in the case, appeared at a loss when asked by U.S. District Judge Edward Korman why he didn't make sure the two-pilot rule was observed.

"I've searched my heart and soul for why," Ryan said. "I can't tell you why."

Afterward, U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf (search) said in a statement that the plea by a ferry supervisor showed prosecutors' resolve to "hold accountable both those on the Barberi and those on shore who were responsible for the crash."

But relatives of one of the crash victims complained that Ryan got off easy.

"It's a disgrace," said the widow of victim Pio Canini. "He'll be out before his next birthday."

Another defendant, former port captain John Mauldin, also pleaded guilty Friday to lying to investigators. Smith, the pilot, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to 11 counts of negligent manslaughter.

Along with the deaths, dozens of people were maimed after Smith blacked out because of fatigue and painkillers, allowing the ferry to slam into a maintenance pier.

Smith's possible sentence is unclear. The low end of the range is just under two years, but prosecutors say guidelines call for a maximum sentence of more than five years.

No sentencing dates for any of the defendants have been set.