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DEADLY BLACKOUT; PILOT HAD COLLISION AT SAME PIER EIGHT YEARS AGO Ferry worker was spotted slumped over the controls.

Byline: ANTHONY HARWOOD US Editor in New York

THE pilot of the Staten Island ferry, seen slumped over the controls moments before it crashed, had smashed into the same pier before.

Richard Smith, 55, ploughed his ship into the same berth in 1995, injuring several passengers. A faulty propeller was blamed.

Ten died in the crash on Wednesday. It is thought Smith may have blacked out and knocked the controls on to full throttle.

He told investigators he had forgotten to take his medication for high blood pressure.

The National Transportation Safety Board plans to investigate if Smith had been drinking, had taken drugs or fallen asleep.

Smith shouted: "Oh s**t", as he battled to shut down the engines before the triple decker craft crashed in 45mph gusts in New York harbour.

Last night it was feared the death toll could rise. Three people are still missing. Divers are searching for the body of a woman. Forty two passengers were injured.

The impact ripped apart the Andrew J Barberi like a can opener, leaving a 200ft long gouge along its side. Some of the 1,500 passengers were cut down and mutilated by collapsing metal poles and wooden beams.

Frantic Smith was among the first off the ship. He was in such a panic, he left his bag and keys behind.

It is not known how he made the three mile journey to his Staten Island home, 10 minutes' drive away.

Once there, he broke in and called his wife Lorraine to say he was sorry. Smith then slashed his wrists and shot himself twice in the chest with a pellet gun.

His frantic wife was already on her way home and found her husband covered in blood, being looked after his colleagues.

Smith was taken by ambulance to the hospital where many of the ferry crash victims were starting to arrive.

Some passengers lost arms and legs. One man was decapitated. One woman and eight other men died.

Passenger Frank Corchado, 29, was shaken from his nap as the triple decker ferry suddenly accelerated hard.

He said: "The scene was total chaos. There was a lady without legs, right in the middle of the boat. She was screaming. You ever see anything like that?

"Most of the people who died were older people, I believe, who couldn't move or didn't have time enough to get out of the way."

Passenger Sean Johnson said he saw a 15ft hole in the hull. "The boat just imploded. There were beams, concrete, everything.

"The whole thing came in through the window. The chairs flipping, windows collapsed. It was sick, right out of a movie. The concrete pier went right through the boat.

"There was no horn, no signal, no nothing. We were going at full speed.

"People were hit behind me, they were pinned under the debris.

"There was nothing, no warning, nothing. There was blood everywhere, man."

The victims were mainly in window seats on the right side of the ship and stood no chance as it hurtled towards the pier.

Musician Evan Robinson, waiting on shore, said: "I looked on in disbelief. I said "Oh my God, he's going to crash."

William Gonzalez, watching from his apartment, said: "The ferry was coming too fast. They had no control to stop the boat."

Reports that captain Michael Gansas had tried to grab the controls were denied by Smith and ferry worker Robert Rush.

Smith was last night in a critical condition after surgery.

Neighbours said he was a hard working man who loved his job and didn't drink.

He was learning to play piano and spent his time tinkering with his beloved 1941 Ford Sedan and doing the garden. Sheryl Syverston said: "He's such a nice man and had been on the ferry for six years.

"He came home, went to his room and hurt himself. He must have been overwrought.

"We're just praying for him. I can't believe this would happen."

Police later cordoned off Smith's house in Westerleigh.

Eddie and Stella McCabe, who have lived next door for 20 years said he loved his garden and had filled in his swimming pool after his children grew up so he had more space for his plants.

They said the accident would haunt Smith for ever. Eddie said: "If you were in his shoes, if you'd seen all the people who were killed and maimed, that's going to be on his mind for the rest of his life."

Smith's attorney Alan Abramson said yesterday: "The family and all concerned hope that people will not rush to judgment. Their prayers go out to all the victims."

Twenty two survivors were being treated alongside Smith last night at St Vincent's Hospital on Staten Island.

Three have had limbs amputated. Others have back and spinal injuries.

One passenger has hypothermia and another has been treated for chest pains. There are no reports of British people being injured.

Yesterday the 70,000 who use the five free ferries between Staten Island and Manhattan every day were resuming their journeys as usual. But commuter Greg Ellis, 48, said: "You're always thinking it could happen again if it happened one time."

CAPTION(S):

RIPPED APART: The Andrew J Barberi lies stricken yesterday with a 15ft wide, 200ft gouge along its side after it ploughed at full; speed into a concrete pier at Staten Island ferry terminal in New York harbour. Above, fire crews and investigators inspect the belly of the ship where 10 died and 42 were hurt; DISASTER SCENE: a ferry comes up to its berth yesterday, left, a distraught fireman
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 17, 2003
Words:936
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