Testimony of Ellen G. Engleman
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation
U.S. House of Representatives
regarding
An Oversight Hearing on the Staten Island Ferry Accident
November 4, 2003

 


Good morning, Chairman LoBiondo, Congressman Filner, and Members of the Subcommittee. I appreciate your interest in and support of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). As you know, the NTSB is responsible for investigating major accidents in all modes of transportation. The 429 employees of the NTSB are dedicated professionals who do not have jobs - they have missions. They are considered the best among the best in the world, and I am proud to represent them before you today.

The Staten Island Ferry accident that occurred on October 15, 2003, was both horrible and horrific. I was personally there to witness the devastation, as well as the tremendous response at all levels of government. In my testimony today, I will give an overview of the accident, highlight the role of the Safety Board, and update you on the status of our investigation.

NTSB investigations are thorough inquiries, supported by fact, science and data. We pride ourselves on the accuracy and quality of our work. We have collected a massive amount of information, and our investigation continues on many fronts. We will be analyzing this information and pursuing improvements to safety. We refrain from speculation and strive to release only confirmed factual information at this stage of an investigation. We release information in context, something compelled by law in aviation accidents with respect to cockpit voice recorder transcripts, and good practice in all of our work. In addition, the Safety Board cooperates and shares information with authorities that conduct parallel investigations, and we are sensitive to respecting their needs and interests, which can impact the timing of our public release of some information.

The New York City Department of Transportation operates a fleet of passenger ferries with service from Lower Manhattan to Staten Island on a 24-hour schedule, 365 days a year. There are seven vessels, two terminals, a maintenance facility, and a fuel storage facility. Five of the seven ferries are in service at any given time, while the other two are being maintained. The Staten Island Ferry system carries approximately 20 million passengers annually. The system accommodated vehicles until September 11, 2001, when car service was suspended.

The ferry route is 5.2 miles long, extending from the south end of the Upper Bay to the west end of the East River in New York Harbor. A one-way trip between Staten Island and Manhattan takes 30 minutes. The transit itself is approximately 22 minutes and loading and unloading passengers takes another eight minutes.

The Andrew J. Barberi and its sister ship, the Samuel I. Newhouse, are the two largest ferries in the Staten Island fleet. The Barberi was built in New Orleans and was delivered in 1981. This class of vessel is 310 feet long, weighs 3,335 gross tons, and can carry up to 6,000 passengers. The ships have 7,000 horsepower, providing a service speed of 16 knots. The Barberi is propelled by two Voith-Schneider propulsion units. One unit is located towards the bow and the other near the stern. These are omni-directional systems that provide thrust by controlling the pitch of five vertically suspended rotating vanes.

The United States Coast Guard inspects the Barberi quarterly and requires it to carry 15 crewmembers, eight of whom must be licensed. Two of those eight crewmembers are the Master and Assistant Captain, both of whom are required to have First Class Pilotage for the New York Harbor. Two licensed deck officers dock the vessel and perform safety duties. Seven deckhands are assigned to cleaning stations and lookout watches and to assist docking and undocking. Two licensed engineers have two oilers helping them in the machinery spaces. In addition, the ferry carries one bathroom attendant.

Because these ferries are on a regular service, they never turn around. Locations on the ferry are named according to which end or side you are on. The Manhattan end always docks in White Hall and the Staten Island end always docks in St. George. The east side of the vessel is the Brooklyn side and the west side is the New Jersey side. The vessel has three passenger decks. The Main deck is the lowest passenger accommodation area. The next deck is the Saloon deck and the highest passenger deck is the Bridge deck. The exterior deck between the two pilothouses is referred to as the Hurricane deck. There is a Staten Island pilothouse and a New York pilothouse. The ferry can be controlled from only one end at a time.

The Master is customarily the conning officer for approaches into New York because of the more difficult currents at the convergence of the Hudson and East Rivers. The Assistant Captain normally controls the vessel as it approaches Staten Island.

On October 15, 2003, at about 3:00 p.m., the Staten Island ferry Andrew J. Barberi departed White Hall terminal in Lower Manhattan for a southbound transit to Staten Island. The vessel proceeded south along a course west of Governor's Island. The reported visibility was 10 miles, and the wind was from the west at 24 knots. The United States Coast Guard Vessel Traffic System reported wind gusts of about 50 knots. There was an outgoing tide and the water level was 2 feet above mean lower low water, the tidal datum.

The Andrew J. Barberi normally proceeds at a speed between 14 and 16 knots. The channel is approximately one-half mile wide and about 50 feet deep. Numerous landmarks and fixed aids to navigation are available. The Staten Island ferries follow a route between floating aids-to-navigation #25 through #29.

At the buoy for the entrance to the Kill van Kull waterway, or "KV" buoy, the vessel normally slows down and makes its approach to the assigned slip at the St. George terminal. For this trip, the vessel was assigned to enter Slip 5. This slowdown changes the noise level aboard the vessel. This change in noise signals passengers and crew that the vessel is about two minutes, or one-half mile from Staten Island. However, this time, no change in noise level prior to impact has been reported.

At approximately 3:20 p.m., the Andrew J. Barberi struck the B-1 maintenance pier east of Slip 5. Damage to the vessel was above the waterline on the New Jersey side from the Staten Island end and extended 200 feet aft. In addition, a large indentation was made in the hull. Ten passengers died and nearly 70 were hospitalized.

A nearby tugboat, the Dorothy J., assisted the Barberi after the accident. The vessel turned around and moored in Slip 5. Rescue workers boarded the vessel to aid victims. The United States Coast Guard and New York Police boarded to test the officers and crew for drugs and alcohol within two hours.

The Safety Board was notified of the accident at about 4:00 p.m. by the NTSB's Communications Center at our Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The duty marine "go team" was immediately notified and launched to the scene to investigate the accident with the Safety Board as the lead federal agency under the terms of our Memorandum of Understanding with the Coast Guard. At my direction, an NTSB aviation investigator from the Parsippany, New Jersey, regional office was also launched and arrived about 5:00 p.m. to secure the scene pending the arrival of the go team.

The go team consisted of an Investigator-in-Charge (IIC) and investigative specialists in vessel operations, marine engineering, survival factors, and human performance. Vehicle recorder specialists were also dispatched to the scene the next day. Representatives of our Office of General Counsel, Office of Public Affairs, and the Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance assisted the team.

Most of the team traveled to New York on the Federal Aviation Administration plane, which is based at Reagan National Airport. They arrived at Newark Airport at approximately 10:00 p.m., having been delayed by air traffic control due to air traffic congestion. The team proceeded to the damaged ferry, which was still docked at St. George terminal. Preliminary meetings were held with Coast Guard and New York City officials, and the team conducted a preliminary survey of the vessel's damage. I was on a southbound Acela at the time of the accident. I disembarked in Wilmington, Delaware, and returned to New York, arriving at the Staten Island accident site at approximately 7:30 p.m.

At 8:30 a.m., on October 16, 2003, the IIC held an organizational meeting at Borough Hall on Staten Island. The following organizations were named as parties to the investigation, and have been participating fully in the investigation:

During the organizational meeting, the investigative groups were established under the leadership of NTSB subject matter experts. Each party to the investigation was invited to provide a suitably qualified individual to serve on each investigative group. The groups are as follows:

Once the investigative groups were established, the groups dispersed, each under the leadership of an NTSB Group Chairman, to conduct the investigation.

During the initial on-scene investigation, more than 55 witness interviews were conducted of crewmembers, New York Police and Fire Department first responders, and company officials. This includes the entire operating crew of the Barberi, except for the Captain and Assistant Captain, two non-crew New York City Department of Transportation employees who were on board the ferry at the time of the accident, Staten Island Ferry officials, an off-duty Coast Guardsman who was a passenger on the ferry during the accident, a specialist in U.S. Coast Guard medical certification, a family member of one of the Captains, and a number of passengers, some of whom were seriously injured.

In addition, the team has tested the steering and propulsion systems and examined the navigation equipment on board the Andrew J. Barberi. During these tests, the team also witnessed the operation of the transfer system passing control from engine room to wheelhouse, and from wheelhouse to wheelhouse. The equipment and systems performed as designed. Further, the team has examined the Samuel I. Newhouse and completed three round trip transits over the ferry route to observe ferry operations. The team also completed preliminary surveys of damages to the vessel and to the dock.

The NTSB's IIC also completed both aerial and surface observations of the approach to St. George terminal following normal ferry tracks. Investigators met with the vessel's designer to gather data on vessel maneuvering characteristics. The NTSB team collected documents regarding Staten Island Ferry operating policies and procedures and is continuing to interview New York City Department of Transportation personnel, including Staten Island Ferry management (Port Captains).

The team also collected medical and personnel records regarding the Captain and Assistant Captain, which will be evaluated by appropriately qualified NTSB personnel. Investigators have obtained the complete personnel records of the two captains on board the vessel at the time of the accident, including any health insurance claims within the last 18 months.

Once the vessel was moved to the Brooklyn Navy Yard the group performed additional damage path assessment.

The investigative team has not had the opportunity to interview either the Assistant Captain, believed to have been operating the vessel at the time of the accident, or his superior officer, the vessel's master. As has been widely reported, the Assistant Captain made an attempt on his life shortly after the accident, and was hospitalized for serious wounds. The Safety Board anticipates interviewing this individual as soon as his medical condition permits. On the other hand, the Captain and master of the vessel initially indicated that he would voluntarily respond to our request for an interview, but did not appear at the agreed upon time. NTSB immediately subpoenaed the Captain in order to compel an appearance. The subpoena has been challenged, on alleged medical grounds, and a hearing on the issue is scheduled for tomorrow in District Court in Brooklyn.

As you may know, more than 520 police, fire and emergency personnel responded to the accident. To date, we have received the following documents in regard to that response:

The initial on-scene investigation continued until Saturday, October 28, 2003, when the team returned to Washington, D.C.

In addition to the interviews we wish to conduct with the Captain and Assistant Captain, we have scheduled interviews over the next few days with the crew of the tug Dorothy J, other Staten Island ferry system captains and mates, and re-interviews with some of the Barberi's crew.

I want to thank all the parties for their cooperation in this investigation to date, and especially wish to thank the Borough President of Staten Island, James Molinaro, and all the other officials of the borough and the City of New York for assisting the NTSB from the early moments of this investigation.

Safety Board investigations are very thorough, and while we regret we have not yet heard from the Captain and the Assistant Captain during this inquiry, we will continue to pursue those interviews, and will, I believe, amass documentary evidence sufficient to lead us to the cause of this tragedy and to remedies to make sure it doesn't happen again.

I will be happy to take your questions.