One very simple question lies at the heart of the investigations into the October 15 crash of the Andrew J. Barberi ferry into a Staten Island pier, which killed 10 people and injured dozens of others: Why didn’t the vessel slow down as it approached the pier? National Transportation Safety Board investigators have found that the ferry was moving at nearly its top speed when it hit the pier. Investigators have also concluded that the ferry had no mechanical problems and have found no illegal drugs, no alcohol and no prescription drugs in the pilot’s blood.
The ferry’s pilot, Richard J. Smith, suggested in a brief statement immediately after the crash that he had lost consciousness. The captain, Michael J. Gansas said on the same day that he was in the pilothouse of the ferry and tried to stop the ferry from slamming into the pier. This initial story quickly fell apart, thanks to eye witnesses, but thus far, neither Smith or Gansas have been talking.
The second puzzle about the accident involves where Gansas should have been during docking. City officials say that standard operating procedures require the captain to be in the pilothouse. Yet the New York Post reports that 10 former or current ferry workers said that the city notified them of this requirement for the first time on November 3, two weeks after the crash. The Post reports that city officials were unable to prove that employees had been notified of the rule prior to October 15. Ferry workers said that it was standard practice for the pilot and captain to be at opposite ends of the boat, with one handling dockings on the Staten Island side and the other handling Manhattan dockings. According to the workers, “ferry bosses” were well aware of that practice. Gansas’ lawyers are now hinting that their defense will claim that captains were never required to be in the pilot house during docking.
A third puzzle about the crash is why city officials are acting so surprised about the accident. City transportation officials point out that the Staten Island ferry has experienced “no major accidents” in its 98-year history. Yet the ferry’s history of minor accidents and near misses suggest that it was only a matter of time. Two hundred passengers were injured in 1978 when the ferry crashed into a seawall, and a December 1992 accident injured no one but caused $120,000 in damage to the vessel. More importantly, the New York Times reports that Coast Guard investigations concluded that mistakes or acts of negligence contributed to these and other accidents. Coast Guard recommendations were never implemented, however, a fact noted by subsequent Coast Guard investigations. In fact, after a September 1998 accident that injured two passengers, the Coast Guard recommended that two crew members be present in the pilot house to watch for potential problems as the ferry approached the terminal. Had that recommendation been put in effect, the October 15 accident might never have occurred.
A fourth puzzle thus is why the Coast Guard safety recommendations were not implemented. The Times reports that ferry operations vary widely from one captain to another. Each ferry is run as a virtual fiefdom of the captain. The Times concluded that “tradition and habit often trump formal procedure” on the ferries. The New York Observer adds another factor – patronage. The Observer reports that ferry workers were protected so long by politicians that workers did not even bother to hide the fact that many do not live in the city, as required by city policy. This context may help explain the lack of follow-through on the Coast Guard’s simple recommendations for corrective action.
A fifth and perhaps the most important question is whether the city will now fix the ferry. One would like to see the city identify the systematic problems with ferry procedures, training and supervision that contributed to this and previous accidents. Indeed, city transportation officials say they are exploring whether new safety procedures need to be developed.
But the city’s initial actions give the appearance that the city is focused on assigning blame to individual workers. Questioned about whether workers had received the standard operating procedures, a spokesman for the City Transportation Department said simply, “The captain is ultimately in charge of the ship.” As to the rest of the crew, the city required all ferry workers to sign an acknowledgement that they recently received the standard operating procedures. The city is also taking steps to ensure that ferry workers live in the city after press reports that Gansas actually lived in Haslet, New Jersey. These steps rather beg the issue of whether the crew is properly trained and supervised.
Ferry safety will apparently require not only clearer procedures, better training and more vigilant supervision, but given comments by a former senior ferry worker quoted in the Times, also a better understanding of what safety requires. This former official said he would put Staten Island ferry officers “up against anyone at Cunard or anywhere else. They’re stone-cold professionals.” But this same former official said that having a second officer assist in docking “would be redundant and necessary only if someone is gong to have a heart attack or some type of episode.”
Yes, well, exactly. Even on the cute little Staten Island ferry, redundancy could be a very important part of safe operations.
Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.