NEW YORK — A Staten Island ferry with a history of accidents malfunctioned as it approached its terminal Saturday and smashed into a pier with a jolt that tossed passengers to the deck and hurt as many as 37 people.
The accident happened at around 9:20 a.m. as the Andrew J. Barberi arrived at the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island, carrying 252 passengers and 18 crew.
The accident appeared to be the result of a mechanical failure, New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said.
Passenger Jason Watler, 30, of St. George, said he became alarmed when the ferry approached the shore faster than usual and ran toward the back of the boat.
"It was not slowing down," he said. "He was going too fast."
Then, he heard a "a real big boom."
"I stumbled a little bit," he said. "People were screaming. People were crying."
Mike Cane, a writer who lives on Staten Island, was also on the ferry. He told msnbc.com that he escaped injury and rushed to help others. He described the scene as "a mess."
“I get up to stretch and I notice this guy who is supposed to driving the ferry. He’s walking very quickly and he’s yelling ‘brake, brake, brake!’ I look out the window and I notice the dock is suddenly at the side. ... That’s when it hit me: We’re going to crash,” he said.
“I opened the window to look out and the front of the ferry was driven straight into the concrete of the terminal," Cane said. "There was no damage to the ferry, other than to the front. Thank God we went straight in (to the dock) because if we had gone in sideways, there would have been a lot more injuries. It was a mess.”
Passengers were shaken, he said. "They were holding their legs and their heads. You could smell the smoke. Within 10 to 15 minutes, firemen and police arrived and they set up ramps so they could get on the ferry and attend to the injured, and then they let us off.”
Mechanical failure blamed
The ferry's throttle failed to engage as it prepared to dock, she said, meaning the crew was unable to use the engines to apply reverse thrust and slow down. The cause of the malfunction is still unknown, she said. The ferry was moving at about 5 knots, or 5.8 miles (10 kilometers) per hour, when it hit.
Coast Guard officials said the ferry suffered serious damage to its ramps and gouges in the decks above the waterline. Ramps on the pier were also damaged. The Department of Transportation described the damage to the vessel and terminal and slip as minor and said the Barberi would be taken out of service.
Video: Coast Guard: 'Ferry lost propulsion' The Fire Department said 17 passengers were initially taken by ambulance to hospitals, but that none had life-threatening injuries. Later, they said 33 had been checked out at hospitals, after first being treated at the scene. One person complained of chest pains. Two police officers providing ferry security were among the injured, officials said, but no crew members were hurt.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it had dispatched a team to investigate the ferry accident.
The Andrew Barberi was also involved in a 2003 wreck that killed 11 people. That accident occurred when the pilot, suffering from extreme fatigue and on painkillers, passed out at the wheel and the boat hit the terminal in St. George at full speed. The ferry returned to service after a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation.
The pilot pleaded guilty to negligent manslaughter and lying to investigators. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The city ferry director was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to negligent manslaughter and admitting he failed to implement or enforce a rule requiring two pilots during docking.
On July 1, 2009, a different ferry lost power and slammed into a pier at the St. George terminal, causing more than a dozen minor injuries among passengers. That accident was blamed on the failure of a transformer, which regulates power to the main propulsion engine.
The ferry runs across New York harbor between Manhattan and Staten Island. Ferries landing at the terminal approach fairly quickly, then slow by putting the engines in reverse. The boat coasts into a U-shaped slip and workers extend large ramps that allow passengers to exit. Most passengers assemble at the front as the ferry arrives.
According to city officials, the ferry captain had 15 years experience, but was newly assigned to the Barberi. They did not release the captain's name.
The crash might have been worse if it had happened during rush hour rather than on a sleepy Saturday morning. The Barberi, an orange behemoth of a boat, can carry up to 6,000 passengers.
Plagued by problems
The Barberi has had other problems since being put into service in 1981, including corrosion and a roach infestation. On its maiden voyage, it suffered a temporary loss of engine power and drifted into some mud near Governor's Island.
The vessel passed annual inspections in 2009 and a quarterly inspection in April, according to the Department of Transportation.
In Saturday's accident, Sadik-Khan said, the crew discovered the mechanical problem in time to alert passengers to brace for a hard landing and move back, although it is unclear how many heard or understood the warning.
Service on the ferry line was suspended after the accident, then restored by late morning.
The ferry itself was dislodged from the dock at the terminal about five hours after the crash, with the help of a tugboat, and taken to another nearby pier area.
The crash will be investigated, Gov. David Paterson said at the scene. He said it was important for him to be on site after the events of the past week had raised tensions in New York City.
"That's the byproduct of harmful acts, and it causes people to be worried about things like transportation," Paterson said.
Msnbc.com's Elizabeth Chuck contributed to this report, as did The Associated Press.
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