Pilothouse staffing levels increased following N.Y. ferry crash

In response to a Staten Island Ferry crash that killed 11 people, the New York City Department of Transportation has begun requiring three people to be in the controlling pilothouse whenever a ferry is leaving or approaching the dock.

Damaged areas of Andrew J. Barberi were swathed in blue tarps following a fatal accident on Oct. 15, 2003.
   Image Credit: Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Mike Hvozda

On Oct. 15, 2003, at 1520, the Staten Island Ferry Andrew J. Barberi, carrying about 1,500 people, struck a concrete maintenance pier several hundred yards away from its St. George terminal dock on Staten Island. Eleven people were killed and 69 were injured. The 310-foot-long double-ended ferry is 3,335 gross tons and can carry up to 6,000 people. The city DOT operates the eight-vessel system, which transports 65,000 people each day between Staten Island and Manhattan.

The circumstances of the crash have focused attention on the number of qualified mariners who should be in the pilothouse to cope safely with an emergency.

It is still not clear why Barberi’s assistant captain, who was at the controls at the time of the accident, did not stop the vessel or turn the highly maneuverable boat to avoid the collision. He tested negative for alcohol and drugs, according to Keith Holloway, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident.

Initial reports indicated that the assistant captain had been taking blood-pressure medication. But subsequent reports said that blood tests after the crash indicated he had not taken any prescription drugs in the 12 to 14 hours before the accident. The NTSB would not confirm the results of the prescription drug test.

There were also reports that the assistant captain had lost consciousness as the vessel approached the dock, but a nearby crewmember later said the assistant captain stood erect and never slumped forward the entire time he was at the helm, according to New York City’s Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall. She was speaking before a Nov. 4 hearing on the accident before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

The crewmember said that the assistant captain did not speak in the two minutes before the crash, Weinshall testified. Immediately after the crash, the assistant captain went home and attempted to commit suicide.

Weinshall also cited evidence that the ferry’s captain was not in the pilothouse at the time of the crash. City regulations require that the captain be in the operating pilothouse upon docking.

The city of New York has moved to fire both the captain and the assistant captain on the grounds that they did not cooperate with the investigation.

The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York took over the case from state authorities on Oct. 29 and is pursuing a criminal investigation of the accident.

The captain, a U.S. Navy veteran, worked for the Staten Island Ferry system since 1996, and was named provisional captain Feb. 10, 2002, according to Tom Cocola, spokesman for the city DOT. The captain helped save a man who fell overboard in 1991.

The assistant captain, a U.S. Air Force veteran, has worked for the ferry system since 1985 and was named captain July 21, 1996. On May 4, 2003, he was switched back to assistant captain at his request, in order to accommodate his family, Cocola said. It has been reported that the assistant captain was at the controls of a ferry in 1995 when the propeller failed to reverse as it approached the pier. He tried to slow the vessel by heading toward wooden pilings, but it hit the dock, injuring about a dozen people.

Although city regulations required that both the captain and assistant captain be present in the operating wheelhouse, William Bennett, the lawyer for Barberi’s captain, has said that the rule was not communicated to the crew and not enforced. “I believe that the standard operating procedures that the DOT has been relying on and quoting in the newspapers were never communicated to the captains or assistant captains. (The captain) was acting properly at all times,” Bennett was quoted as saying in an article by the Associated Press.

The city transportation department denies that the rule was not enforced. “I know a lot of people are mentioning the whole standard-operating-procedures situation, because some captains and assistant captains have gone to the local media, with anonymity, saying, ‘Wait a minute; we never did this,'” Cocola said. “The only evidence we’ve seen to corroborate that publicly is unnamed sources in newspapers.”

“We fundamentally believe that when a boat is in the middle of the harbor, it’s the captain who is in charge of the ship,” Cocola said.

Cocola said the city has traced standard operating procedures for the Staten Island Ferry back to the 1950s. Those procedures were formalized in 1987 and amended again in October 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks. It is the responsibility of the port captain and the director of ferry operations to supervise the ferry captains, he said. When asked to detail the most recent case of a crewmember being disciplined for not being in the wheelhouse, Cocola replied, “We’re still researching that.”

As part of the U.S. attorney’s investigation, the city was subpoenaed for memos and documents relating to ferry operations back to 1998.

As part of the new rules, the city announced on Oct. 22 that a deck hand will also be assigned to the operational pilothouse at all times. Should the captain or assistant captain be required to leave the pilothouse for any reason, the deck hand can contact that officer immediately via radio. “Let us be clear: During docking, both the captain and the assistant captain should be in the pilothouse at all times,” Weinshall said.

All crewmembers were also provided with radios, and a crew check-in system was put in place. All vessels were outfitted with Global Positioning System devices. In addition, ropes are now put up to keep passengers back from the bow on both decks of all vessels “to minimize the risk during hard landings,” according to Weinshall.

On Oct. 31, Weinshall announced that the Global Maritime & Transportation School, at Kings Point, N.Y., would begin a review of all ferry operations. Weinshall said that GMATS would investigate vessel operations, human factors, safety issues and management operations. The school is to gather information about the Oct. 15 accident and also review U.S. Coast Guard reports about past incidents.

Ferry crew were to be issued uniforms, and the public address systems on all vessels were to be improved. Starting Oct. 27, city transportation staff began checking vessels at all hours to make sure ferry staff were visible and that the pilothouse was properly staffed.

By adopting the new rules, New York appeared to be catching up with safety standards already in place in other large ferry operations in the United States. Washington State Ferries, for example, has required two licensed officers in the wheelhouse of its vessels at all times for at least the last 30 years.

“It’s part of the culture,” said Capt. Bill Hughes, who is responsible for navigation electronics and training for the ferry system.

The Washington State Ferries system operates 29 vessels and carries more than 26 million passengers a year. The largest vessels are 460 feet long, over 3,200 gt and can transport 2,500 people, 218 cars and 60 commercial vehicles.

On all trips there is a captain and a quartermaster in the pilothouse. During the night, they are joined by a lookout, according to Capt. Jim Malde, port captain for the Washington Ferries. At times of poor visibility, such as fog, snow, rain or heavy wind, another licensed officer will come to the pilothouse. “You always have a witness in the pilothouse with you,” said Malde, who has worked for the ferry system for over 30 years.

This system developed as a way to verify what happens on the bridge. “It’s a second set of eyes to be there,” Malde said. “Then if anything happens, they are there either to assist or get hold of somebody to help.”

Malde said he requires his captains to be vigilant in reporting any damage to vessels or piers and any hard landings. “I put one master back to mate for one year for a hard landing,” he said.

Malde could recall only one recent case where injuries occurred as a result of a state ferry colliding with a dock. On June 12, 1998, the 2,477-gt MV Sealth hit a dock after its propulsion controls failed, slightly injuring seven passengers and causing over $2 million in damage to the pier.

The Washington and Staten Island ferries are among the few systems with vessels over 100 gt that transport both people and vehicles, and are classed by the Coast Guard as subchapter H vessels. Most passenger ferry systems in the United States are either under 100 gt and carry more than 150 passengers (subchapter K vessels) or under 100 gt and carry between six and 150 passengers (subchapter T vessels). Although the Coast Guard does provide crew-size guidelines for all ferries, it does not specify the number needed in the pilothouse.

If the Staten Island accident results in rules for minimum staffing levels in ferry pilothouses, the economic consequences for smaller ferry operations could be severe.

Gerry McGovern, who owns RiverLink Ferry System, which operates two vessels under 100 gt that carry 400 and 600 passengers between Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., said that current Coast Guard rules only require one licensed master for subchapter K vessels. To require a second licensed master “would shut the service down,” he said.

“Economically, how do you justify paying for that?” McGovern said. “These vessels are small; it’s a small-time operation. It doesn’t carry the commuter traffic you expect from larger vessels, and the economic justification isn’t there.”

By Professional Mariner Staff