The captain of a commuter ferry that crashed into a lower Manhattan wharf told federal investigators Thursday that the vessel had a mechanical failure and he was unable to put it in reverse when he tried to dock.
The 36-year-old captain of the Seastreak Wall Street was interviewed by National Transportation Safety Board investigators for three hours Thursday, one day after the vessel made a hard landing, hurling scores of people down stairs and into walls at the end of a routine run across New York Bay. Around 70 were hurt, 11 seriously.
The captain, Jason Reimer, and his crew "were shaken and very concerned about the accident," said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt. "They've been very forthright and cooperative."
Sumwalt said the captain told investigators that as the ferry approached the dock, he moved from a central console to one on the starboard, or right, side of the vessel, as was customary. When he tried to put the ferry in reverse, it didn't work, Sumwalt said. He quickly switched back to the center, but reverse didn't work there either, he reported. He also reported the engines later died.
At the time it smashed into the dock, the Seastreak Wall Street was going about 13 miles an hour, which is fast for the usual crawl into the slip, but not necessarily for turning into the area, experts said. After the impact, the boat was able to dock normally. Reimer said the steering mechanism was not an issue, according to the NTSB.
The ferry had recently undergone a major overhaul that gave it new engines and a new propulsion system, and officials are looking into whether they played a role. The vessel will be inspected out of the water.
The captain was "Seastreak's most experienced," Sumwalt said, with 17 years on ferries, 12 of them as captain.
Even under normal conditions, safely landing such a large vessel is a sensitive endeavor that requires deep skill, maritime experts said Thursday. Pilots must factor in currents, the number of passengers — and even the moon.
Bill Allen, a retired Staten Island Ferry captain who worked in New York Harbor for two decades, said it's something passengers take for granted.
"It's not like driving a bus, where you come up to a stop and just put the brakes on. It's a whole different ballgame," he said.
Though there have been a few ferry accidents in recent years, there are hundreds of trips each day by companies shuttling commuters around waterways, each ending with soft, seamless landings.
Yet, near the end of the route the Seastreak Wall Street travels is an area known to captains as "the spider," where a weave of currents converge and can cause headaches for pilots.
"That particular area in the East River is difficult to begin with," said Allen, who had a perfect safety record. "When you make a landing with a ferry, no matter what kind, you come in riding with the current, or you're riding against it, so you're either powering up to buck that current or not, and that depends on the time and the day."
Capt. John Hagedorn, a professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., said in order to dock any vessel, pilots must first learn about it; the length, the weight, the height and the engines. From there, they study variables like the number of people on board, the moon and tides, current and winds.
"It's all about experience," Hagedorn said. "Experience is what gives the mariner the ability to put the knowledge about the vessel together with the knowledge about the environment in order to get the vessel where he wants it to go."
NTSB crews were expected to be on scene all week. Investigators were documenting the damage on the pier and combing through the ferry's maintenance records. They also were interviewing the ferry's engineer, but Sumwalt said they were slowed by the fact that the man's first language is Burmese.
The NTSB also was looking for amateur footage of the crash and asked anyone with cellphone images or videos to share them.
Police said the boat's crew passed alcohol breath tests given after the crash. Crew members also took drug tests, the results of which weren't immediately available.
About 330 passengers and crew members were aboard the ferry, which had arrived from Atlantic Highlands, N.J., on its second trip of the day. Some passengers were bloodied when they banged into walls and toppled to the floor.
The captain reported he started his work day at his normal 5:30 a.m. and was rested. The accident happened just after 8:40 a.m.
In 2003, 11 people were killed when a Staten Island Ferry crashed into a pier after its pilot passed out at the wheel. In 2010, three people were badly hurt and about 40 were injured when the same ferry hit the same pier because of a mechanical problem.