Federal investigators looking into the Staten Island ferry accident that injured dozens say there were no engine alarms prior to the mishap.
National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said Sunday that investigators were not ruling anything out into what caused the ferry to malfunction and smash into a pier.
He says investigators have already interviewed the chief engineer and some of the crew members and have met with the ferry's management.
The NTSB team will spend as much as a week collecting information and evidence surrounding the accident. Alcohol tests results have come back negative. Drug tests are still being evaluated. The accident happened at about 9:25 a.m. Saturday on the Staten Island side across New York harbor. Authorities said the boat was traveling at normal speed as it approached the terminal and a mechanical problem was to blame for the crash.
The city's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, says the ferry's throttle failed to engage as it came in for a landing. That meant the crew was unable to use the engines to slow the vessel. The ferry was moving at about 5 knots, or 5.8 miles per hour, when it hit. The cause of the malfunction is still unknown.
Passenger Jason Watler, 30, of St. George, said he realized the ferry was moving faster than usual as it approached the shore, became alarmed and began to run toward the back of the boat.
"It was not slowing down,'' he said. "He was going too fast.'' Then, he heard a "a real big boom.''
"I stumbled a little bit,'' he said. "People were screaming. People were crying.
Emergency workers responded in full force after the ship, carrying 252 passengers and 18 crew, slammed into the pier, tossing passengers onto the deck. Police and Fire Department officials say 37 people were treated for minor injuries at the scene; they initially said 17 of those victims were taken to the hospital. Later, officials said 33 victims had been checked out at hospitals after first being treated at the scene. No serious injuries were reported, but one passenger complained of chest pains.
Two police officers who provide security on the ferry were among the injured, officials said, but no crew members were hurt.
Coast Guard officials say the ferry suffered serious damage to its ramps and gouges in the decks above the waterline. Ramps on the pier were also damaged.
Sadik-Khan said the crew discovered the mechanical problem in time to alert passengers via loudspeaker to brace for a hard landing about a minute or so before it happened, although it is unclear how many heard or understood the warning.
Some passengers were taken by ambulance to area hospitals. Others were bandaged and comforted by firefighters at the scene. Cameras showed multiple people being carried on stretchers and lined up on the ground by emergency authorities.
Authorities say the vessel is the Andrew J. Barberi, the boat involved in a 2003 crash that killed 11 and injured dozens at the same terminal. That accident occurred when the pilot, suffering from extreme fatigue and on painkillers, passed out at the wheel and the boat hit the terminal in St. George at full speed. The ferry returned to service in July 2004 after a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation.
The pilot pleaded guilty to negligent manslaughter and lying to investigators. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The city ferry director was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to negligent manslaughter and admitting he failed to implement or enforce a rule requiring two pilots during docking.
Ferry officials say it was pure coincidence -- albeit a disturbing one -- that the same boat involved in that fatal crash was involved in today's incident. But some were still disoriented by the connection.
"That’s the first thing I thought of," said Christian Nielsen of Tottenville, Staten Island. "That’s why I didn’t walk up front at first because I remember how bad people were hurt then and I just don’t (like) seeing stuff like that."
Ferries landing at the terminal approach fairly quickly, then slow by putting the engines in reverse. The boat coasts into a U-shaped slip and workers extend large ramps that allow passengers to exit. Most passengers assemble at the front as the ferry arrives.
Dwayne Forrest, 47, of Knoxville, Tenn., was sitting in the front with of the ferry with his wife, Sheila. He said he heard a warning, buzzers sounded and then someone said "Red! Red! Red!'' and about 15 seconds later, the boat hit.
"The engines were going when we hit. It was a hard jolt. ... Luckily we were sitting down,'' he said. "It was a matter of seconds between when the buzzers went off and the impact (was) 10 to 15 seconds it seemed like ... If you were standing up there was no way you could remain standing."
"Someone ran in front of us and said, 'Brace for impact,'" added Jason Eason, also of Tennessee.
The Forrests were in New York City on vacation and were told they could get a better look at the Statue of Liberty if they rode the ferry.
Eason described the injuries some victims suffered, while Dwayne Forrest's wife, Sheila, lauded emergency authorities for getting there so fast.
"Some people were holding they're head and bleeding and things like that," said Eason. "Some people were crying and a lot of the other passengers were helping the ones that were hurt."
"It was pretty amazing to see how fast the paramedics the police were here on the scene," added Sheila Forrest. "Everybody was not in chaos. Everybody just kinda stayed cool."
Alex Gonzalez, 36, of the Bronx, said the ferry appeared to speed up, rather than slow, as it approached the dock. He said the impact threw a woman and child standing near him about 10 feet.
"It was the scariest thing of my life,'' he said.
Service on the ferry line was suspended after the accident, then restored by late morning. The ferry itself was dislodged from the dock at the terminal about five hours after the crash, with the help of a tugboat, and taken to another nearby pier area.
The crash will be investigated, Gov. David Paterson said at the scene. He said it was important for him to be on site after the events of the past week had raised tensions in New York City.
"That's the byproduct of harmful acts, and it causes people to be worried about things like transportation,'' Paterson said.