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Details sought from pilot in N.Y. ferry probe

Toll of injured climbs to 42 in fatal crash at Staten Island pier

NEW YORK -- Federal authorities investigating why a ferry bound for Staten Island crashed into the St. George Terminal, killing 10 passengers, interviewed crew members and victims yesterday but were waiting to speak in detail with the pilot, who appeared incapacitated as the vessel was about to dock Wednesday.

"I'm confident we will eventually get to the bottom of this," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference. "It will take time. We want to make sure we don't make any mistakes."

One day after the tragedy, the Staten Island Ferry system, which carries 70,000 people a day, was busy as ever. Meanwhile, residents in the quaint, tree-lined neighborhood where the 55-year-old pilot, identified as assistant captain J. Richard Smith, lives with his wife and children, described him as a friendly family man.

"This was a big surprise," Cheryl Syverton, a neighbor, said. "It's hard to know what happened. All we can do is pray for him, his family, and of course, for the family of those who were hurt."

Bloomberg said the number of injured had climbed to 42 people. He said three people had been reported missing, but one, a Staten Island woman, showed up at the home of a friend in the afternoon.

Smith, who worked for the ferry for 15 years, had arrived to work about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. The day was beautiful but windy. Smith and captain Mike Ganas already had made three trips that day when the 310-foot ferry, the Andrew J. Barberi, left Manhattan at 3 p.m. with 1,500 passengers. As the boat approached the Staten Island terminal, apparently at a speed faster than normal, it slammed into a pier made of wood and concrete. One woman and nine men, ranging in ages from 25 to 52, died in the crash. Dozens of others were treated for injuries.

Shortly after the crash, Smith rushed off the ferry, jumped into his car, and drove home, where he shot himself in the chest with a pellet gun and slit his wrists. Smith was in critical condition at St. Vincent's Hospital. Blood tests conducted on Smith showed no signs of alcohol use, but New York City officials said investigators are also investigating whether Smith forgot to take medicine for blood pressure. Witnesses also said they saw Smith slumped over the the controls of the ferry just before the crash.

An official with the the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency leading the investigation, said investigators have received conflicting reports about Smith's condition.

"We don't want to pass on stories or rumors," said Ellen Englemen, chairwoman of the safety board.

Englemen said Smith had been questioned by police Wednesday, but added he had not yet been interviewed in depth.

The agency will be looking into whether correct procedures were followed as the ship sailed its 25-minute route from Manhattan to Staten Island. Englemen said the agency also will be investigating whether high winds were a factor and whether both the pilot and captain should have been in the pilot house as the vessel was about to dock.

"Our investigation will be thorough," she said. "Our investigation will be detailed. Our investigation will be based on fact, science, and data. It will not be distracted by supposition, desire, or guesswork."

No one answered the door at Smith's home on Staten Island, which was surrounded by yellow police tape. His attorney, Alan Abramson, issued a statement from Smith's family.

"The family and all concerned hope that people will not rush to judgment," the statement said. "Their prayers go out to all victims."

Neighbors yesterday said they felt compassion for Smith and his family. "He is a very normal guy," Syverton said. "He's quiet and he worked around the house."

Neighbors said he lived at the home with his wife, a teenager daughter, and a small child. The family was always busy, said Amy Crane, who lives across from Smith's home. He was often seen working on antique cars.

"I just always had a good feeling about that house," Crane said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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