Staten Island ferry Barberi idled after accident injures dozens

NEW YORK (AP) — A Staten Island ferry that malfunctioned and smashed into a pier tossing passengers to the deck and hurting as many as 37 has been idled, while federal and local officials try to figure out what went wrong.

The Andrew J. Barberi that hit a pier at St. George Ferry Terminal on Saturday was the same ferry involved in a 2003 wreck that killed 11 people. The ship had a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation before it was put back in service.

Capt. James DeSimone, the ferry's chief operating officer, said it was unlikely the mechanical failure had anything to do with damage suffered by the vessel in 2003 and that the ship had passed all the necessary inspections.

"There's no relationship whatsoever," DeSimone said. "The two of them shouldn't be spoken of in the same breath."

According to the New York City Department of Transportation, the vessel passed annual inspections in 2009 and a quarterly inspection in April.

The Barberi was carrying 252 passengers and 18 crew when the accident happened about 9:20 a.m. Saturday. Service on the ferry line between Staten Island and Manhattan was restored by late morning, and the National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team to investigate.

Gov. David Paterson arrived and also promised an investigation. He said it was important for him to be on site after the events of the past week raised tensions in New York City.

DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said the ferry's throttle failed to engage as it prepared to dock, meaning the crew was unable to use the engines to apply reverse thrust and slow down. The approximately 3,000-ton, 310-foot-long ferry was moving at about 5 knots, or 5.8 miles per hour, when it hit.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said Saturday evening that routine drug and alcohol tests were conducted on crew members. The alcohol tests came back negative; the drug tests were still being evaluated.

"Throughout the next few days our experts will work on scene to gather the details of the accident," NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said.

Sumwalt said investigators will do a 72-hour history of the crew and will also look at crew interaction, the vessel's navigation and propulsion systems, and its maintenance and inspection records.

"Our mission is to find out not just what happened but to find out why it happened so that we can make recommendations to prevent the type of recurrence in the future," Sumwalt said.

Sadik-Khan said the crew discovered the mechanical problem in time to alert passengers to brace for a hard landing and move back, although it was unclear how many heard or understood the warning. Capt. Donald Russell used a danger signal — multiple blasts on the ship's whistle — and shouted "Red!" to warn of an imminent emergency, DeSimone said.

Dwayne Forrest, 47, of Knoxville, Tenn., was sitting in the front with his wife, Sheila. He said he heard a warning, buzzers sound and then someone saying, "Red! Red! Red!" About 15 seconds later, the boat hit, he said.

"It was a hard jolt. ... Luckily we were sitting down," he said.

The Forrests were in New York City on vacation and were told they could get a better look at the Statue of Liberty if they rode the ferry.

Alex Gonzalez, 36, of the Bronx, said the ferry appeared to speed up, rather than slow, as it approached the dock. He said the impact threw a woman and child standing near him about 10 feet.

"It was the scariest thing of my life," he said.

Ferries landing at the terminal approach fairly quickly, then slow by putting the engines in reverse. The boat coasts into a U-shaped slip and workers extend large ramps that allow passengers to exit. Most passengers assemble at the front as the ferry arrives.

Coast Guard officials said the ferry suffered serious damage to its ramps and gouges in the decks above the waterline. Ramps on the pier were also damaged. The DOT described the damage to the vessel and terminal and slip as minor.

The ferry was dislodged from the dock at the terminal about five hours after the crash, with the help of a tugboat, and taken to another nearby pier area. The Coast Guard said the Barberi would be taken out of service.

Fire Department spokesman James Long said a total of 37 passengers were treated. He said 35 were taken to hospitals, but none had life-threatening injuries. Of those, 34 were treated and released and one remained hospitalized for further evaluation, Long said.

Two police officers providing ferry security were among the injured, officials said. No crew members were hurt. Russell, who has 15 years experience, has worked on the Barberi for five years and was promoted from assistant captain to captain in March, DeSimone said.

The Barberi accident in 2003 occurred when the pilot, suffering from extreme fatigue and on painkillers, passed out at the wheel and the boat hit the terminal in St. George at full speed.

The pilot pleaded guilty to negligent manslaughter and lying to investigators. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The city ferry director was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to negligent manslaughter and admitting he failed to implement or enforce a rule requiring two pilots during docking.

The Barberi has had other problems since being put into service in 1981, including corrosion and a roach infestation. On its maiden voyage, it suffered a temporary loss of engine power and drifted into some mud near Governor's Island.

On July 1, 2009, a different ferry lost power and slammed into a pier at the St. George terminal, causing more than a dozen minor injuries among passengers. That accident was blamed on the failure of a transformer, which regulates power to the main propulsion engine.


Associated Press writer David B. Caruso contributed to this report.