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Investigators looking into high-speed ferry crash

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 9:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
Injured passengers of the Seastreak Wall Street ferry are aided, in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW YORK (AP) — A high-speed commuter ferry that crashed into a lower Manhattan dock, injuring dozens of people, had recently undergone a major overhaul that gave it new engines and a new propulsion system, and officials are looking into whether they played any role in the morning rush hour accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board also will begin interviewing crew members of the catamaran Seastreak Wall Street on Thursday, a process NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said would take all day.

The ferry had slowed following a routine trip across New York Bay and past the Statue of Liberty Wednesday morning when the impact took place, hurling scores of people to the deck or into the walls. Around 70 were hurt, 11 seriously.

The naval architecture firm that designed the reconfiguration, Incat Crowther, said in an August news release that the ferry's water-jet propulsion system had been replaced with a new system of propellers and rudders to save fuel costs and cut carbon dioxide pollution in half. James Barker, the chairman of the ferry's owner, Seastreak LLC, said the overhaul made it "the greenest ferry in America."

The hull was reworked, and the boat was made 15 metric tons lighter. At top speed, the ferry, built in 2003, travels at around 35 knots, or 40 mph.

Seastreak spokesman Bob Dorn, asked whether the work had hurt the ferry's maneuverability or caused pilots any problems, said it would be up to the National Transportation Safety Board to determine if the new equipment played any role.

Sumwalt said the NTSB was aware of the modification and would "certainly be looking at that, as well as everything else."

"Right now we want to collect all the information we can so that we can begin our analysis," Sumwalt added during an interview on Fox 5 News on Thursday morning.

He said the vessel did not have a data recorder and was not required to have one. But he said that wouldn't hinder the investigation, and they should be able to get information from the boat's electronic charting system and photographic evidence.

On Thursday, investigators also will be documenting the damage on the pier and engineers will begin to comb through the ferry's maintenance records.

Dee Wertz, who was on shore waiting for the ferry, saw the impact. She said that just moments before the ferry hit, she had been having a conversation with a ferry employee about how the boat's captains had been complaining lately about its maneuverability.

"He was telling me that none of these guys like this boat," she said. "It was coming in a little wobbly. It hit the right side of the boat on the dock hard, like a bomb."

About 330 passengers and crew members were aboard the ferry, which had arrived from Atlantic Highlands, a part of the Jersey Shore still struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy. Passenger Frank McLaughlin, whose home was filled with 5 feet of water in the late October storm, said he was thrown forward and wrenched his knee.

"We come in and do this every day, and so it just kind of glides in," he said. "It came in hard, and it was just a huge impact as we hit."

Some passengers were bloodied when they banged into walls and toppled to the floor, he said.

"We were pulling into the dock. The boat hit the dock. We just tumbled on top of each other. I got thrown into everybody else. ... People were hysterical, crying," said Ellen Foran, of Neptune City, N.J.

New York City's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, said the ferry was coming in at 10 to 12 knots, or about 12- to 14 mph, when it struck one slip and then hit a second.

After the impact, the boat was able to dock normally. Wertz, who saw the crash from the dock, said passengers raced off once the ramp was down.

"I think people just wanted to get the heck off the boat as soon as they could," she said.

Police said the boat's crew passed alcohol breath tests given after the crash. Crew members also took drug tests, the results of which weren't immediately available.

Officials identified the captain as Jason Reimer, an experienced seaman. In a 2004 profile in Newsday, Reimer said he had joined Seastreak as a deckhand in 1997 and became a captain three years later at age 23. Barker called him "a great guy."

The NTSB said it had yet to interview the captain.

The Seastreak Wall Street has been in minor accidents before. Coast Guard records said the ferry hit a cluster of fender piles while docking in 2010, punching a small hole in the ship's skin. In 2009, it suffered another tear on the bow after another minor docking collision. No one was injured in either of those mishaps.

Such ferry accidents happen every few years in New York. In 2003, 11 people were killed when a Staten Island Ferry crashed into a pier on Staten Island after its pilot passed out at the wheel. Three people were badly hurt and about 40 were injured when the same ferry hit the same pier in 2010 because of a mechanical problem.

Wednesday's ferry accident happened just a few hours before a 200-foot-tall crane collapsed onto a building under construction near the East River waterfront in Queens, injuring seven people.

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Karen Matthews, Larry Neumeister, Ted Shaffrey and Verena Dobnik and researcher Judith Ausuebel.

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