The NTSB sent an 11-member “go team” to New York yesterday to examine why the ferry carrying passengers from New Jersey collided with a pier. The agency is empowered by Congress to probe accidents, determine their probable cause and make recommendations, Robert Sumwalt, a member of the board, told reporters yesterday at the pier.
“We’re here to determine what happened so we can prevent it from happening again,” he said.
About 57 people were hurt, including nine who were seriously injured and two who were in critical condition -- one of whom had a head wound from falling down the stairs, said Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner. Among the injured were two employees of Barclays Plc, according to the bank, which declined to give the staff members’ names.
The boat left Highlands, New Jersey, at 8 a.m. with 326 people aboard, including five crew members, Sadik-Khan said during a press conference at the pier yesterday morning. The boat ran into one slip and then slammed into another, she said.
“It was a hard landing,” Sadik-Khan said. “It looked like it was 10 to 12 knots.”
The NTSB team, led by investigator-in-charge Morgan Turrell, will interview the vessel’s captain, crew and passengers, examine regulatory compliance and oversight and review the ship’s propulsion, steering and mechanical systems, Sumwalt said.
The team will also review the crew’s performance and examine maintenance and training records, Sumwalt said. The team will spend about five to seven days in New York gathering “perishable evidence” to help determine the cause of the accident, he said.
The team will also look at drug and alcohol tests that were conducted on the crew after the crash in accordance with federal requirements, the results of which will “take time,” Sumwalt said.
One of the things the NTSB plans to look at is whether the ferry operator had a safety-management plan in place as the agency recommended after the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash that killed 11 people, Sumwalt said during an earlier briefing in Washington. Richard Smith, an assistant captain who was at the boat’s helm and passed out after taking painkillers, pleaded guilty to seaman’s manslaughter in August 2004 and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
“This is a public mode of transportation,” Sumwalt said. “A lot of people use the ferry system in New York City every day. If there’s an accident, we want to be there to investigate and make recommendations.”
The vessel remained docked at the pier yesterday with a gash several feet long clearly visible on its starboard side as commuters boarded other ferries for trips out of Manhattan.
The Coast Guard, which is investigating the ferry company’s history, didn’t immediately have any information available about its safety record, Erik Swanson, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard in New York, said yesterday in a phone interview.
“Historically, you don’t hear about these accidents very often on the harbor, but accidents do happen,” Swanson said.
The immediate focus is on assisting the injured, conducting drug and alcohol tests and figuring out how the incident happened, Swanson, a petty officer, said. The Coast Guard isn’t releasing the name of the boat’s pilot, he said.
“We were coming in and it seemed like normal speed,” said Greg Schnell, 43, vice president of information technology at Havas Health Inc. and a regular rider on the ferry. “We hit and heard a grinding sound, which was metal being ripped, and people went flying forward about 10 feet.”
Seastreak carries passengers daily between central New Jersey and Manhattan on five boats, according to its website. It is a sister company of tug and barge operator Moran Towing Corp., Interlake Steamship Co., which operates bulk vessels on the Great Lakes, and Mormac Marine Group Inc., according to the website.
Sea Containers Ltd., a British rail and ferry operator, sold Seastreak in March 2008 to Stamford, Connecticut-based New England Fast Ferry Co., an affiliate of Moran Towing, Interlake Steamship and Mormac Marine.
Sea Containers filed for bankruptcy Oct. 15, 2006, with a plan to shed money-losing European ferry and rail operations in favor of its traditional business of providing shipping containers worldwide. It emerged from bankruptcy in February 2009.
Seastreak runs a dozen trips each weekday between New York and Highlands and Atlantic Highlands in New Jersey, with stops at Pier 11 and East 35th Street. Both New Jersey docks were wrecked by Hurricane Sandy last year and had to be replaced, although the company’s boats weren’t affected by the storm, said Chairman James R. Barker.
The vessel’s crew initiated emergency response procedures immediately following the crash and the company has sent an incident response team to the scene to probe the incident, Seastreak said in a statement posted on its website. Company management is working with emergency responders and the police and fire departments, Seastreak said.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those that were injured,” Seastreak said in the statement. “Seastreak LLC will work closely with the federal, state and local authorities to determine the cause of the accident.”
The company also said it is offering free transportation to New York for friends and family members of those injured, as well as overnight lodging if necessary.
“Right now we’re working to bring their families to those who will not be going home tonight,” Barker told reporters at the pier yesterday. “Our thoughts and our prayers are with those who were injured.”
Barker said he would be “shocked” if drug and alcohol tests on the crew came back positive. The boat’s captain has been with the company for about 10 years, is a “great guy and a fine captain” and hasn’t been involved in any other accidents “to my knowledge,” Barker said.
“It’s been a long day and a terrible day for all of us,” Barker said.
The ride from Highlands to Wall Street takes 45 minutes and costs $45 for a single round-trip ticket or $655 for a book of 40 one-way tickets. The company offers five New York-New Jersey trips on weekend days, and has added commuter services to and from the Rockaways in Queens, New York. In the summer, it runs ferries to the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard
The Seastreak Wall Street entered service in September 2003 after being built by Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding in Somerset, Massachusetts, according to Seastreak’s website. It is 141 feet (43 meters) long, 34 feet wide and can carry 505 passengers and crew, according to the website. It has three decks, two interior with tables and chairs and a sightseeing platform.
The vessel, which is equipped with a full-service bar, has a “service speed” of 38 knots (70 kilometers an hour) and can go as fast as 42 knots under the power of four main engines and four water jets.
The Seastreak Wall Street has been involved in at least four other accidents, according to online Coast Guard incident investigation reports.
During an inspection in December 2006, a 1-foot-long crack was found in the hull during as a result of a crash into a pier, according to a Coast Guard report. A company engineer told inspectors he covered the crack and didn’t report the damage because he didn’t think it was of much significance, being several feet above the water line, according to the report. No injuries were reported.
Less than two weeks later, the boat collided with another vessel as it was leaving a shipyard to allow the ferry to moor. Nobody was hurt.
In August 2009, the ferry suffered a 2-foot-to-3-foot tear to its starboard bow when it crashed while docking at East 35th Street due to a loss of electrical power, according to a Coast Guard report. No one was injured.
On Jan. 29, 2010, the boat hit a cluster of pilings while docking, resulting in a hole being punched through the skin of the ship on the port side, according to a Coast Guard report. Nobody was hurt.
The vessel was recently refitted with a new propulsion system earlier this year, making it 15 metric tons (33,075 pounds) lighter and cutting carbon-dioxide emissions in half, according to a statement released in August by the firm that did the project, Incat Crowther.
The boat has had a “couple of shutdowns,” but “nothing serious,” said Barker, who called it “the greenest ferry in America.”
The operator of the vessel in yesterday’s crash “slammed the right front corner of the boat into the pier,” said passenger Gregg Lazarescu, 43, a financial adviser at Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) who said he regularly takes the 8 a.m. from New Jersey. “He misjudged it. I would guess he was going 12 miles an hour. He was pulling in too fast and he had it wrong. Sometimes you go in rough and you say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t good,’ but this was a crash. People went flying.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told reporters in Belmar that he had received a preliminary briefing on the ferry wreck and said the state is committed to making sure Seastreak continues to operate and does so safely. He said the state’s Transportation Department would talk to ferry operators about what’s needed to ensure service continues and to guarantee safety. The governor criticized attempts to characterize the collision as a “hard landing.”
“I think you only call it a hard landing if you were the guy driving it,” he said. “I wish I could have gotten away with that when I was a kid and got in an accident with my father’s car. ‘Dad, I had a hard landing. Don’t worry, everything’s fine.’ I wish I could have gotten away with that.”
Donovan Mannato, 44, a part-time Broadway producer and full-time financial adviser for Wells Fargo, was sitting on the upper level putting up his seat tray when the boat hit and his forehead slammed into it.
“I have a bruise on my face,” he said. “The guy in front of me was just standing up and he went flying like about five feet, propelled forward into the aisle. It took him a while to get up. He was in pain.”
As upper-level passengers tried to disembark at the back of the boat, “there was a man lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase,” Mannato said. “There was blood everywhere, so we couldn’t exit that way. I couldn’t tell if he was conscious.”