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Investigators Focus on Pilot in Fatal Ferry Crash Investigation Investigation

By Robert D. Mcfadden

THE NEW YORK TIMES -- NEW YORK

The investigation of a Staten Island Ferry crash that killed 10 people and injured scores more focused on Thursday on a pilot who slumped at the wheelhouse controls as the boat swerved off course and slammed full speed into a pier that tore open its starboard flank and raked passengers like rag dolls.

In addition, investigators said they were questioning whether other members of the crew were in a position to give backup assistance to the pilot when he collapsed as the ferry sped toward collision on Wednesday. The ship’s captain tried, too late, to intervene, a police official said.

City regulations require that both the captain and his assistant be in the pilot’s house during docking. Investigators were trying to determine whether the captain was there when the boat hit a pier on Staten Island.

The pilot, Assistant Capt. Richard J. Smith, may have blacked out or become delirious because of a blood-pressure condition and the medication he took for it, some investigators said.

One said that Smith, who slashed his wrists and shot himself with a pellet gun after walking away from the chaos of the crash, told an officer on the way to a hospital that he had high blood pressure and had taken his medication that morning. He was in critical condition on Thursday. Medical experts said that high-blood-pressure medications could cause blood pressure to fall and cause dizziness or fainting in some cases.

Seven of 67 people injured in the crash also remained in critical condition, some with horrendous injuries: One person lost a foot, another a leg, two lost both legs and one person was paralyzed; others had critical spine or head injuries. Some of the dead had also lost limbs or were decapitated.

Smith, 55, of Staten Island, an 18-year ferry-service veteran with a clean record on the job, has a lawyer, although the Staten Island district attorney said his inquiry was not now a criminal investigation. Blood samples obtained from the pilot and other crew members found no evidence that illegal drugs or alcohol were factors, officials said.

A day after the tragedy, thousands of commuters rode the rumbling ferries again across a sun-drenched harbor, federal and city investigators began what could be a yearlong inquiry and a stunned city tried to fathom New York’s worst ferry disaster in 132 years. It was the city’s deadliest mass transit accident since 16 people were killed in a Times Square subway crash in 1928.

Gov. George E. Pataki, in a news conference on Staten Island, said that as deadly as it had been, the crash, at 3:20 p.m., might have been far worse if it had occurred an hour or two later, when the number of homebound commuters would have been in the thousands, not the hundreds.