Sources: Ferry Pilot Tried Suicide

One hour after the fatal crash of a Staten Island Ferry, police called to the house of a man identified as its pilot found him with a pellet shot to the head and slashed wrists, police sources said last night.

The man was identified as Richard Smith of 75 Margaretta Court in the borough's Westerleigh section -- about a 10-minute ride from St. George, the scene of the accident.

"The assistant captain at the controls collapsed," saidCouncilman Michael McMahon. "By the time the other captaincould get control of the ship, it was too late."

According to McMahon, the crash was related to "health problems andmedication" -- reportedly for a blood pressure problem.

Early results indicated alcohol was not a factor, according to a high-ranking lawenforcement source speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Ellen Englemansaid today the agency has "a lot of conflicting reports" aboutthe pilot's condition prior to the crash. "We don't want to pass on stories or rumors," she said.

Smith, 55, spoke with police yesterday, but has not yet been interviewed indepth, Engleman said.

Alan Abramson, an attorney for Smith, released a two-sentencestatement today after meeting with the pilot's family.

"The family and all concerned hope that people will not rush tojudgment," said Abramson, who has yet to meet with his client."Their prayers go out to all the victims."

Smith was taken to St. Vincent's Medical Center on Staten Island in police custody, the sources told Newsday, as officers cordoned off his house with wooden barricades and posted police there.

About 4:20 p.m., a male caller to 911 said the boat's captain had tried to kill himself at that address. That's when police responded.

Neighbor Sheryl Syverston, 52, said police talked to her about the captain and told her he tried to hurt himself. She saw the captain taken away on a stretcher, his wife and sister following.

"It's terrible, just terrible," Syverston said. "He's such a nice man. A real family man. All I can do is just pray for them."

Syverston said Smith never talked about work but she often saw him leaving home and returning in his uniform.

Another neighbor, Stella LoBianco, said Smith is a Staten Island native who has lived at his current house for 23 years. They talked about gardening and raising children. She said he was happy when he became a captain six years ago and the neighbors were happy for him also.

The father of four has many interests, including gardening and playing classical piano. "I could hear him practicing. It was very beautiful," LoBianco said.

When one of his daughters graduated from high school recently, he bought her a flower arbor, neighbors said. At one time he was also fascinated with antique cars, spending hours refurbishing a1941 Ford sedan in his driveway.

"He had to be totally traumatized when he left that boat," said LoBianco. "If he saw what had happened, he would just have to be totally traumatized by the effect of what happened. It's going to get worse for him."

Iris Weinshall, department of transportation commissioner, said Smith has worked for the city for 15 years and has a clean record. "He has a lot of senority, she said, adding that staffers are combing personnel files "to ascertain if there is anything we should have seen."

Coast Guard officials today referred questions on Smith to theNational Transportation Safety Board, which is heading theinvestigation into the crash. Agency spokesman Keith Holloway said his staff didn't yet have Smith's medical records.

Department of Transportation spokesman Tom Cocola said todaythat Smith would have undergone routine physical and drug andalcohol tests before becoming certified by the Coast Guard. Allcrew members' records were being reviewed, Cocola said, adding that he didn't have any information on Smith's medical conditions.

Authorities last night also quickly sought to question the other 15 members of the crew who had been aboard the Andrew J. Barberi during its fatal afternoon crash into a St. George pier.

"The crew is all being investigated, interviewed, tested for drugs and alcohol, as is the normal procedure," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "All the crew members, as far as we know, are alive, so we'll be able to get the information."

But sources said some crew members, accompanied by union lawyers, had yet to answer investigators' questions.

The crews that shuttle the ferry day and night over its 5.2-mile route comprise a New York Harbor hybrid of municipal workers and mariners.

The size of the crews varies with the class of the boat. The Andrew J. Barbieri, which was involved in the fatal crash, was introduced in 1982. It is one of the two largest ferries in service and it carries a required crew of 16.

Captains, who pilot the boats from their wheelhouses, must pass a series of nine difficult exams, officials say. Once they receive their licenses, the pay can range above $70,000.

In July 2002, one veteran supervising captain, John Mauldin, was quoted by the Staten Island Advance as saying: "During rush hour, we carry more people than an aircraft carrier. That's a huge responsibility.

"We carry 20 million people every year through one of the busiest harbors in the world," he said.

Anthony Palmiotti, director of continuing education at the SUNY Maritime College in Throgs Neck, said landing the boats properly against their docks isn't as easy as it looks.

Without commenting on specifics of yesterday's accident, Palmiotti said that in general, "It's a lot like Tiger Woods hitting a long shot... The job of the captain is to make it look easy.

"You have 3,335 tons of steel, moving in a certain direction at a certain speed. It generates an awful lot of momentum. On the flip side, it is a testament to the skill of these guys. They do it every day, whether it's foggy, rainy, windy, or whatever."

With the Associated Press and staff writer Ellis Henican.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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