Another Staten Island Ferry Crash Haunts Innocent New Yorkers

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

It is unlikely that there are any New Yorkers who are not aware of the Staten Island Ferry crash of October 15, 2003, which claimed the lives of 11 people and injured 70 others. On that date, the Staten Island Ferry vessel Andrew J. Barberi slammed full-speed into a concrete pier while en route to the St. George ferry terminal in Staten Island. The Andrew J. Barberi, by far the largest boat in the Staten Island ferry fleet, is massive – 310 feet long, 3,335 tons, capacity of 6,000 passengers. There were approximately 1,500 passengers on board that day in 2003. The crash occurred when the ferry’s pilot, Richard Smith, lost consciousness while at the ship’s controls, due to ingestion of prescription and over-the-counter medication. The rule requiring that two qualified pilots be in the wheelhouse at all times was violated by the crew on board that day. Adherence to this rule could have prevented the incident or at least lessened its severity. Innocent lives were at risk because of the dubious decisions of a few New York City employees.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted an investigation into the incident and identified safety flaws in several different areas. Block O’Toole & Murphy, a prominent personal injury law firm in New York City, was proud to be one of the law firms that was called upon to help the victims of this tragedy. Now, after reviewing the file and litigating the initial tragedy, the lawyers at Block O’Toole & Murphy are astounded that the mistakes of the past seem to have reared their head again and, once more, innocent lives have been jeopardized.

On May 8, 2010, the Andrew J. Barberi, while carrying 252 passengers and 18 crew members, again slammed into a pier outside the St. George ferry terminal, injuring at least 37 people. Thankfully, the accident occurred on a Saturday morning instead of during a busier time when the boat would have been much more crowded. The ferry hit the pier at full speed and rocked the terminal, causing the whole building to shake and some witnesses to compare it to a “bomb”. The same boat slamming into the same pier echoed the terror that many experienced during the 2003 crash. Now the trial lawyers at Block O’Toole & Murphy are asking, “How could this have happened yet again?”

This time the City of New York is blaming the crash on a “mechanical failure” (the failure of a throttle to engage which disallowed the crew to slow down the boat as it approached to dock) and is going to great lengths to try and distance this Andrew J. Barberi crash from the 2003 incident. Capt. James DeSimone, the ferry’s chief operating officer, said “there’s no relationship whatsoever” between the two incidents and said “the two of them shouldn’t be spoken of in the same breath”. This is easy to say; more difficult to accept. The Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, which runs the ferry service, is also understandably concerned about comparisons to the 2003 tragedy, and called the May 8, 2010 crash a “very different situation” in a recent press conference.

Are the public pleas by the City of New York about the safety of its riders or are they focused on distancing itself from responsibility for another ferry accident?

This is a valid question that will be answered over time. Despite the defensive posture taken by the City, there will likely be no escaping liability once the inevitable NTSB investigation has been completed. In fact, one ferry worker, who did not want to be identified, conceded to the New York Times that the boat had clearly been traveling too fast while approaching the dock. Further, proper routine and preventative maintenance of the boat would have likely identified the throttle problem and staved off the malfunction which led to the accident.

The Andrew J. Barberi, which went into service in 1981 and is the second-oldest in the Staten Island ferry fleet, is no stranger to mishaps. On its maiden voyage it suffered a temporary loss of engine power and drifted into some mud near Governor’s Island. An accident in 1995 involved a failure of its propulsion system, similar to what happened on May 8, 2010. Several people were injured. The additional accidents in 2003 and 2010 make for a boat with a troubled and dangerous history to say the least.

Another incident, involving a different Staten Island ferry boat, occurred as recently as July 2009 when it lost power before docking and crashed into the St. George terminal with 800 people on board. That time another 15 people were injured. The boat was cited as having a history of electrical problems since being put into service in 2005.

The Staten Island Ferry service runs 110 times a day transporting 65,000 people between Manhattan and Staten Island. This amounts to approximately 19 million people a year riding the ferries. Pardon the pun but the City of New York needs to run a tighter ship and take additional measures to ensure the safety of those who put their trust in them and ride the ferries every day. Until then, the Andrew J. Barberi and the rest of the boats in the Staten Island ferry fleet represent a ticking time bomb. Another accident seems inevitable unless the City of New York starts worrying about being accountable to their riders rather than running away from liability in the courts. Can our city afford to have local residents and tourists alike fear traveling on our ferries? The answer is obviously no.

Block O’Toole & Murphy is one of the premier personal injury law firms in New York City. Block O’Toole & Murphy is comprised of a team of New York personal injury lawyers that are devoted to truly caring for and fighting for the rights of their clients. The attorneys at Block O’Toole & Murphy are noted for their hard-work, fierce but fair negotiation skills and excellence in the courtroom.


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