Louis Lanzano / AP File
Assistant ferry captain Richard Smith enters Brooklyn federal court on Monday.
updated 1/9/2006 5:03:20 PM ET 2006-01-09T22:03:20

The pilot at the helm of a Staten Island ferry during a 2003 crash that killed 11 people was sentenced Monday to a harsher-than-expected 18 months in prison. The city’s former ferry director was sentenced to one year in prison.

Assistant Capt. Richard Smith apologized to victims’ families and recalled how he was too exhausted to have been working that day.

“I will regret for the rest of my life that I did not just call in sick,” Smith said. “I was on the wheel. I was responsible. I stand ready to suffer the consequences.”

The ferry director, Patrick Ryan, apologized to the families of the victims before he was sentenced to one year and a day. “For my part of this, I’m so terribly sorry,” he said.

A probation official had recommended that Smith get three months in prison and Ryan six months, but sentencing guidelines called for as much as 27 months for the captain and 16 months for his supervisor.

Family members of victims pleaded with the judge to hand down the maximum punishment.

Christine Santuro, the sister of a victim, called the three-month recommendation for Smith “an absolute joke.”

“You are no better than a drunken driver,” Debra Palamero, another sister of a victim, told Smith.

Historic disaster
The ferry crash was one of the worst mass-transit disasters in New York history. On a blustery day, the ferry Andrew J. Barberi set out on a routine run across New York Harbor from lower Manhattan with about 1,500 passengers and Smith alone in the wheelhouse.

As the vessel approached Staten Island, Smith — suffering from extreme fatigue and on painkillers — blacked out. The ship hit a concrete maintenance pier at full speed, injuring dozens of passengers.

Smith wore a grim expression during the hearing and occasionally sighed as family members addressed the court. He also offered an in-depth recollection of his suicide attempt. Immediately after the wreck, he said, he slashed his wrist while still on the boat, then rushed home and shot himself twice with a pellet gun.

“I tried to end my life but failed,” he said. “I know now that was the easy way out.”

Smith, 57, pleaded guilty in 2004 to negligent manslaughter. Ryan, 53, pleaded guilty to related charges last year, admitting he failed to enforce a rule requiring ferries be operated by two pilots whenever docking.

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