With the imminent release of a $700,000 safety study of Staten Island ferry operations, New Yorkers are still waiting to find out what really happened on Oct. 15, when a crash killed 11 ferry passengers and injured more than 70.
The ferry mystery, and the way City Hall has handled it, stands in stark contrast to other recent incidents involving city workers. “We will not tolerate a cover-up,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said when a firefighter was severely injured in a brawl with a colleague on New Year’s Eve. Indeed, the next day the alleged offender was arrested and, last week, the captain in charge of the firehouse that day was forced to retire and fined $90,000. (The captain originally said the injured firefighter was hurt in an accident, not a fight.)
When a police officer killed a teenager on the roof of a Brooklyn apartment house two weeks ago, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said within 10 hours that the shooting was unjustified. The next day, the cop’s photo was on the front page of the tabloids, guilty until proven innocent.
But the day after the ferry crash, the Mayor said it would take a year to find out what really happened.
Investigators are still trying to determine the exact whereabouts of the doomed boat’s captain, Michael Gansas, at the time of the accident. A crucial piece of evidence-the captain’s log, which Mr. Gansas had to sign at the beginning of his tour-was turned over by city Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall to the National Safety Transportation Board.
The city is devoting time and energy to checking on the residencies of ferry workers, who are not permitted to live out of state. But Ms. Weinshall has yet to announce the results of any investigation into a far more serious subject: the complicity of New York shipping companies in providing fake “sea papers” for ferry workers.
Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, the king of the weekend press conference on topics ranging from cell-phone portability to gift-card fees, has yet to say a word about the ferry crash, even though a federal agency, the Coast Guard, has some regulatory powers over the ferry. The Senator, of course, is married to Mr. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner. Could that have something to do with the long delay?
Although the assistant captain of the ferry, Richard Smith, fled after the accident took place, he has not been arrested for leaving the scene of an accident. But the Mayor promises that he will chase down anyone who is “urinating on your doorstep,” as he said last week when he was forced to admit that his staff had released phony figures-off by 100,000-on the number of “quality of life” summonses issued last year.
Sources tell The Observer that at least two ferry supervisors face indictment, mainly because they failed to follow city safety rules, including the one mandating that the captain and the assistant captain should be in the pilothouse at the same time. That wasn’t the case with Mr. Gansas and Mr. Smith during the deadly journey across the harbor on Oct. 15. Left unexplained is what will happen to their supervisors.
Just two weeks before the fatal accident, Ms. Weinshall and Mr. Bloomberg were aboard a Staten Island ferryboat. Did they notice if there were one or two people in the pilothouse? One of Ms. Weinshall’s deputies was spotted regularly in the Manhattan ferry terminal, where the ferry pilothouses are clearly visible as the boats pull into the dock. Did he ever report anything untoward?
After the crash, Ms. Weinshall assigned her staff to ride the boats to make sure that ferry workers were all at their assigned stations. Now Mr. Bloomberg wants to spend another $1.4 million to extend the contract of a maritime consultant charged with improving ferry safety-a task that would take any competent administrator about two days.
Anyone who thinks the ferry has changed since Oct. 15 should stop by the Manhattan ferry terminal, where they will find every fire exit locked-a violation that would close down any nightclub in town. Such a violation puts the lives of thousands of commuters at risk and is a contradiction of the Mayor’s crusade to reduce legal claims against the city.
A visitor this week found that the deckhands and the city’s anti-terrorism cops were back to pre–Oct. 15 normalcy: hanging around the snack bar and not patrolling the boat.
As the ferry pulled into the dock in the darkness of a cold winter night, a deckhand had one hand on the security gate and the other on his cell phone, chatting away. Despite the “equal opportunity” mantra touted by Mr. Bloomberg on a regular basis, female passengers found a locked women’s bathroom with a sign claiming that there was no money to pay for an attendant.
The men’s bathroom, which was open, had no such sign.