Ferryman in double suicide bid: Felt as if the ferry accelerated as it approached land


16/10/2003 07:39 - (SA)

New York - A Staten Island ferry slammed into a pier as it was docking, killing at least 10 people, tearing off victims' limbs and reducing the front of the mighty vessel to a tangled mass of wood, glass and steel. At least 42 people were injured.

The ferry pilot, responsible for docking the vessel, fled the scene immediately after Wednesday's crash, went to his Staten Island home and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists and shooting himself with a pellet gun, a police official said. The pilot was rushed to the same hospital as many of the victims and underwent surgery.

After interviewing another crew member, authorities began investigating whether the pilot was asleep at the wheel as the boat approached land, a law enforcement source told reporters.

The 93m ferry, carrying about 1 500 passengers, ploughed into the enormous wooden pilings on the Staten Island end of its run from Manhattan at 15:20, ripping a giant hole in the three-level, bright-orange vessel.

Passenger Frank Corchado said it felt as if the ferry accelerated as it approached land, waking him as he napped on the trip home to Staten Island. He ran away from the front of the boat to safety, but saw others who weren't so lucky - six people dead, including one who had been decapitated.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at least 10 people were killed and 42 injured, making it New York's worst mass-transit accident in nearly a century. At least one body was recovered from the water.

The crash happened on a windswept afternoon, with gusts over 64km/h.

Bloomberg said the ferry's crew will be interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol.

Hospital officials said at least three victims had limbs severed in the accident, while others were suffering from massive trauma, back and spinal injuries, chest pains and hypothermia. The water temperature was about 62 degrees Fahrenheit (17 degrees Celsius).

The ferry pilot, identified as Richard Smith, was undergoing surgery at Staten Island University Hospital, said Dr. Pietro Carpenito. The police source said he was taken to the hospital after someone at his home called 911 about an hour after the accident. He bolted the scene so quickly that he left behind his keys, and was forced to break into his home, the law enforcement source said.

Police said they had obtained a sample of the pilot's blood for testing, and that he was being represented by an attorney. Telephone messages left at his home were not returned.

Ferry service was halted after the crash, but officials said it would resume for the Thursday morning rush.

Associated Press Writer Tom Hays also contributed to this report.