Congressman Says Mayor Stonewalls In Ferry Inquiry

On the day when New Yorkers went to the polls to vote on Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to institute nonpartisan elections as a way to “reform” city politics, an old-fashioned political brawl broke out at a Congressional hearing looking into the Staten Island ferry crash that killed 10 and injured dozens on Oct. 15.

U.S. Representative Vito Fossella of Staten Island publicly accused Mr. Bloomberg’s staff of “stonewalling the investigation by putting pressure” on the committee to “disinvite” a key witness, Ferry Mate Robert Rush. “This is bizarre, hypocritical and unconscionable,” Mr. Fossella said at the hearing, held on Staten Island under the auspices of a House Transportation subcommittee. Both Mr. Fossella and Mr. Bloomberg are Republicans.

Mr. Fossella, not known for his incendiary personality, noted that the Mayor only recently called for the firing of anyone who refused to testify. Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall, one of the several witnesses who testified at the hearing, fired back in unusually strong language, accusing Mr. Fossella of a “blatant falsehood” in making his claim.

At issue is the testimony of Mr. Rush, who has told city and federal investigators that Captain Michael Gansas was not in the pilot house at the time of the accident. Mr. Rush also claimed not to have noticed that Assistant Captain Richard Smith, who was on six forms of medication, had lost consciousness but was still standing at the wheel when the ferryboat Andrew Barberi rammed a wharf. Mr. Rush said he was doing paperwork in the pilot house.

Mr. Rush has not yet spoken publicly about the events leading to the disaster. He was expected to be one of the most important witnesses at the hearing, since he claims to have been in the pilot house when the accident occurred. But he did not show up, despite the subcommittee’s request.

Confronted with Mr. Fossella’s charge, Ms. Weinshall tried to parse her words by saying that “no one in D.O.T. or the Mayor’s office called the committee.” Mr. Fossella interrupted her, saying: “One of us is lying, and it’s not me.” At that point, the city’s Corporation Counsel, Michael Cardozo, took the microphone and admitted that he called the Mayor’s lobbying office in Washington. He said that he’d asked an official in the office whom he wouldn’t identify to tell the subcommittee that federal investigators were concerned that Mr. Rush’s testimony would hinder the inquiry.

“I never asked that Rush be uninvited,” Mr. Cardozo said.

The fireworks were limited to the exchanges between Mr. Fossella and Ms. Weinshall. No ferry personnel testified, and so the only person who has placed Captain Gansas on the boat is Mr. Rush. The Observer asked Ms. Weinshall, who arrived at the disaster scene at 4 p.m., if she ever saw Captain Gansas that day. She said she did not. She also said she has no idea where Captain Gansas is or if he under any sort of surveillance.

New Yorkers who are enraged by this stonewall might wonder just how safe the city is these days-not from terrorism, but from home-grown incompetence and cover-ups.

After Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez threw Yankee coach Don Zimmer to the ground during a playoff brawl in Fenway Park, Mr. Bloomberg announced that had the incident taken place in New York, he would have thrown Mr. Martinez in jail. But three weeks after the worst mass-transit accident since 1918, the Mayor has yet to order the arrest of Mr. Smith for leaving the scene of an accident. Under the City Charter, the Mayor is the city’s chief magistrate and has enormous investigatory powers through his Police Department and Department of Investigations. So far, he hasn’t used them.

The Mayor’s inaction contrasts with the arrest of a subway motorman, Robert Ray, who crashed a No. 4 train at the Union Square station in 1991, killing five and injuring 200. After leaving the scene, Mr. Ray meandered upstairs, bought some cheap liquor and sat on a park bench watching the body bags of his victims being carried out of the station. He was arrested later that night, tried and convicted of manslaughter.

Also, in March of this year, it took the police just three days to arrest the alleged killers of two city cops murdered during an undercover “buy and bust” gun transaction. There was no waiting period for grand juries, subpoenas, Congressional hearings or safety experts hired by the city. As things now stand, there is nothing to prevent either Mr. Smith or Mr. Gansas from fleeing the country.

As this waiting game goes on, there still are vital questions that remain unanswered and leads that apparently are not being pursued. For example:

· Who is checking on the credentials of ferry workers, especially deckhands? The possible complicity of New York’s shipping companies in providing fake papers “documenting” sea experience of deckhands has yet to be examined. This has enormous implications for homeland security. If ferry documents are easily forged, what about the manifests of ships entering the harbor?

· Why did four workers in ferry garb speed away from the disaster site in a navy blue S.U.V. less than 30 minutes after the accident? Why did the workers park the S.U.V. around the corner from the home of the parents of Captain Gansas? The Bureau of Ferries concedes that it owns such a vehicle, but officials say it was “blocked in” at the St. George terminal by police and fire emergency vehicles.

An eyewitness to the speeding S.U.V. told The Observer that the vehicle was veering into oncoming traffic during its mad dash from the disaster site to a location near the captain’s parents’ house. “They seemed crazed and in a rush,” said the eyewitness, who was unaware of the ferry accident at the time. “I thought that perhaps they were cops-but when all the action [police, firefighters, E.M.T.'s] was going in the opposite direction, I began to think that they might be bank robbers.” Although the witness couldn’t get close enough to copy down the S.U.V.’s license plate, she saw the driver nearly hit two cars, run a red light and then park near a doughnut shop. The men inside the S.U.V. “were jumpy-in and out of the front seats,” the witness said, noting that they did not go into the doughnut shop. Thinking they had noticed her watching them, the witness went into the shop. The S.U.V. took off.

· The Coast Guard records the radio transmissions of all harbor traffic. Tapes of the transmissions would reveal the voice of the person who was at the wheel as the Barberi left Manhattan. The transmissions also would tell us who was communicating with the pilots of other vessels in the busy harbor.

· Security cameras are trained on the harbor by the Coast Guard and the F.B.I.-NYPD joint anti-terrorism task force. Video enhancements might help the city determine Captain Gansas’ whereabouts during the trip. The images might also reveal who else was in the pilot house, and what Assistant Captain Smith was doing as the boat crashed into the dock.

· Tourists on the ferry, on Circle Line cruises and near the seawall in Battery Park regularly shoot video and film of the passing Staten Island ferries. No one in City Hall has issued a call for such images. The Department of Transportation has installed “high-tech” security cameras in the Manhattan terminal-the kind that showed Mohammad Atta at a Maine airport on Sept. 11-but the city’s cameras do not have any tape in them and are used only for “crowd control.”

· Assistant Captain Smith left the scene of the accident: That is beyond dispute. But Mr. Bloomberg needs to ask which ferry workers helped Mr. Smith off the boat and away from the scene. He needs to ask why the pilot house wasn’t fingerprinted, to begin the process of learning who was there and who wasn’t.

While the Mayor correctly expressed his “outrage” that Captain Gansas has refused to cooperate with the investigation, he has not lived up to his promise to “take every legal action” against him. The Mayor’s outrage over the withholding of vital information, however, appears to be selective, because his Police Department has refused to release tapes of 911 calls made from the crippled ferryboat.

Those tapes would show whether 911 operators had difficulty figuring out the exact location of the boat-a frightening possibility, but not without precedent. Last January, four teenagers drowned while boating off City Island after a 911 operator couldn’t pinpoint their location because city computers track only streets and can trace a “call-back” number only to a land line, not a cell phone. After that accident, news reports highlighted the fact that the technology now exists for 911 operators to pinpoint the exact location of a cell-phone caller. The city, however, has yet to implement this technology-even though the state collects a monthly surcharge on cell-phone bills to upgrade the 911 system.

The ferry crash wouldn’t be the first time 911 operators have had trouble identifying accident scenes. Last year, a retired police officer told The Observer about his frustration after watching a motorcyclist slam into a wall in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. “The police operator kept asking me for the cross streets,” he said. “I was screaming into my phone that it was the tunnel that connects Manhattan and Brooklyn and I didn’t know the streets. She said, ‘It doesn’t show up on my computers.’”

Some other clues about the behavior of the ferry crews have yet to be addressed, including the casual atmosphere of the pilot house. After this newspaper published a story about the ferry’s close connections with the Staten Island political machine, a reader supplied a videotape of television host Regis Philbin steering the boat. Former Mayor David Dinkins was at the wheel of the Barberi in 1992. And as recently as August, a young Staten Island woman was invited to the pilot house and allowed to steer the boat in mid-harbor. There is also a famous news photo of Jackie Onassis at the helm, with then-Commissioner Vito Fossella-the Congressman’s father-smiling broadly next to her. The only question seems to be: Who hasn’t piloted the Staten Island ferry?

Meanwhile, Ms. Weinshall has yet to tell the public if she and her staff have verified the home addresses of ferry workers who are required to live in the five boroughs. Captain Gansas, it turned out, actually lives in Hazlet, N.J., but used his parents’ house as his “official” address. One longtime ferry manager told The Observer that he knows at least 20 ferry workers who have fake New York City addresses. “They’ve been protected for so long by politicians that some of them got cocky and they didn’t even try to hide it,” said the ferry manager, who asked to remain anonymous.

The cockiness is still there, as the ferry crew members hide behind a seawall of silence. Despite the fact that Ms. Weinshall has now assigned other city workers to monitor the activities of deckhands, mates and captains, last week a deckhand was spotted on the lower deck, locked in a passionate embrace with a woman for the entire 20-minute crossing, oblivious to everything else around him. In addition, some workers with political connections still feel that they are beyond the reach of supervisors. One of them is so brazen that he takes a truck clearly marked “Bureau of Ferries” home every night and uses it for his private business.

City Hall is doing nothing to persuade the public that we really are prepared for the next tragedy.