Fractured Ferry Tale

In the immediate aftermath of the Staten Island Ferry catastrophe, Mayor Bloomberg’s top aides were pointing to high winds as a possible cause of the terrible crash. Anyone who has ever been on a 3,300-ton ferryboat-as the Mayor had been just two weeks earlier-would instantly recognize that assertion as preposterous.

Longtime regular ferry riders-I’ve been one for the past 40 years-know that the ferry service is mismanaged and corrupt, and has been for decades.

As we grieved for the dead and maimed, it was difficult to judge where the outrage should be directed: at the Mayor, who saw fit to attend the next night’s Yankee playoff game as if nothing more than a traffic accident had happened, or the tabloids, which featured 48-page baseball wraparounds just two days after the bodies were recovered from the blood-soaked rubble.

The fabled Staten Island Ferry-the city’s fourth-most-popular tourist attraction-is awash in overtime scams, safety problems, fire hazards, poorly maintained equipment and politically connected appointees. All the while, the city’s Department of Transportation, which runs the ferry service, is presiding over the next tragedy in waiting, this one in the Whitehall Terminal. There, every evening, thousands of ferry passengers are crammed into an enclosed space with every fire-exit door locked. Didn’t we learn the lesson of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?

The ferry disaster also offered further proof that the city is still woefully unprepared for emergencies. After the crash, another ferryboat packed with commuters was stranded in the harbor for two hours.

Mr. Bloomberg said it will take a year to find out what really happened. But he should begin, right now, a top-to-

bottom inquiry into the sewer that is the Staten Island Ferry, if for no other reason than to protect the city against future lawsuits in future accidents.

One maritime lawyer interviewed by The Observer, Abram Bohrer, says the city could easily wind up paying in the tens of millions of dollars for ferry claims. He should know: Mr. Bohrer sued the city two years ago when his client, a British tourist, was injured during a docking accident. Mr. Bohrer said that depositions made it clear that “there was a lack of safety practices, protocols and procedures.” He remembers telling a city lawyer that “it is only a matter of time before something worse happened” on board the Staten Island Ferry.

The city’s liability was put in even more jeopardy when the Mayor’s spin doctors refused to release the standard operating procedures for ferry crews. Those of us who have seen ferry operations up close have good reason to be skeptical of anything City Hall says or does about ferry service. I covered ferry corruption as a reporter for Staten Island newspapers from 1978 to 1987, and I was shouted down by then-Mayor Koch and his aides when I tried to ask about ferry corruption. At the time, it was common knowledge that would-be deckhands, some with fraudelent paper attesting to their sea experience, interviewed for their jobs in the office of Staten Island’s Democratic Party chairman. On July 15, 1982, a day after I spent seven hours reviewing documents in the offices of Mr. Koch’s Transportation Commissioner, Anthony Ameruso, my car was firebombed. (Mr. Ameruso was convicted of perjury during the municipal scandals of the late 1980’s.)

My inconvenience was minor compared to the fate that met the ferry’s onetime director of leasing, Rick Mazzeo. After serving a jail term on a tax rap, he tried to shake down Democratic power brokers for a new city job. His body was found in the trunk of a car.

Mazzeo’s murder has remained unsolved, but it stands as a symbol of what has been so terribly wrong with the ferry agency for three decades.

The reasons for the ferry’s mismanagement number in the hundreds and go back at least to 1974, when Abe Beame turned the ferry staffing and leases over to the notorious Roy Cohn, along with the city’s five Democratic county leaders and ferry boss Vito Fossella, the father of Staten Island’s current Congressman. Cohn got a no-bid parking-lot lease from which he skimmed $5,000 a week. The lease with the previous owner was broken after his legs were broken.

Since then, the ferries have been a patronage mill for Staten Island politicians, who have kept it pretty much as a white male preserve. Despite the attractions of a $40,000 annual salary for a 32-hour week and city health benefits, the boats have no women deckhands and few blacks.

Mr. Bloomberg, now busy trying to convince voters about the sanctity of “nonpartisan” city government, has essentially followed the same practice as his predecessors, who used ferry operations as a political chit. Last month, he flew to Wisconsin to christen a new ferryboat that he named after Republican power broker Guy Molinari, the former Staten Island borough president who once said that State Attorney General candidate Karen Burstein was “unfit” to hold public office because she was a lesbian.

The Mayor should have known something was amiss in the harbor during his 2001 campaign. In June of that year, candidate Bloomberg boarded a ferryboat, walked right past a sign that read “Authorized Personnel Only” and entered a ferryboat pilot house. As a campaign stunt, he briefly took over the controls of the boat, which is a violation of city and Coast Guard rules.

If the Mayor wants to know more about the ferry service, he might want to talk to whistleblower George Mooney, an honest ferry worker who wrote to city officials and Mayor Giuliani for five years, warning them about serious safety problems with the boats. In a scene reminiscent of On the Waterfront , he was beaten by four ferry workers in 1999. He suffered a concussion and a broken arm.

The Mayor should drop by Mr. Mooney’s house so he can’t feign ignorance the next time a ferryboat and its passengers get ripped to shreds.