NTSB official: No evidence that NYC ferry accident was intentional or criminal act

NEW YORK (AP) — The investigation into a Staten Island ferry that slammed into a pier over the weekend has turned up no evidence of a crime, according to a federal official, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday indications pointed to mechanical failure.

"At this point in the investigation, we have no reason to believe this was a criminal or intentional act," National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said in an e-mail Monday to The Associated Press.

The ferry's assistant captain, Maqbool Ahmed, was piloting the Andrew J. Barberi, with the captain nearby in the bridge, when it crashed at Staten Island's St. George Ferry Terminal on Saturday, injuring about three dozen people, city Department of Transportation spokesman Seth Solomonow said Monday.

NTSB investigators were interviewing Ahmed and some of the approximately 18 crew members. They also were expected to talk to some of the 252 passengers who were aboard the ill-fated trip.

Bloomberg said that Ahmed and the captain were next to each other at the time of the crash and that, similar to co-pilots on airplanes, they took turns being at the helm on different segments of the ferry ride to make sure each gained experience in the position.

"I think everybody's so far convinced that this was a mechanical problem," Bloomberg said.

Based on an initial interview with the ferry's chief engineer, "All conditions concerning the engines were normal prior to the accident," Sumwalt said Sunday.

The engineer, who was in the ferry's engine control room, said there were no engine alarms before the accident, Sumwalt said. There also were no previous problems with the propulsion system or electrical systems, he said.

At a press conference on Monday, Sumwalt said there was no indication anyone cut power to the ferry's engines. He said video footage of the bridge showed the crew was applying proper procedures to slow the vessel and didn't appear to be distracted.

There were four people on the bridge during the accident, the captain, assistant captain, mate and deck hand, Sumwalt said. It was apparent to them that the vessel did not show signs that it was slowing down as it approached the dock and that it was coming in faster than normal, he said.

The vessel was involved in a 2003 wreck that killed 11 people. That accident occurred when the pilot, suffering from extreme fatigue and on painkillers, passed out at the wheel and the boat hit the St. George terminal at full speed. The ferry returned to service after a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation.

Alcohol and drug tests were conducted on the crew members in Saturday's accident, Sumwalt said. The alcohol tests, which were conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard, came back negative for all, and the drug tests were being evaluated, he said. Investigators have not ruled anything out yet, Sumwalt said.

The seven-member NTSB team will spend as much as a week collecting information.

The ferry runs across New York harbor between Manhattan and Staten Island. Ferries landing at the terminal approach fairly quickly, then slow down by putting the engines in reverse.

Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB, said an investigation into a marine accident like the ferry crash would look into several areas, including any possible mechanical failures and human errors. Investigators also will look at operational procedures to see if the processes that were in place to run the ferry could have led to any problems, he said.

Most of the injuries in the crash were minor. Four people were admitted to a hospital. One was discharged Monday morning, and the others were expected to be sent home later in the day.