Two sentenced in fatal New York ferry accident

Sentencing of two principals in the fatal Staten Island Ferry crash took an unexpected turn as a probation officer blasted city management and took a swipe at the U.S. Coast Guard’s medical disclosure rules as well.

U.S. District Judge Edward Korman gave Asst. Capt. Richard Smith 18 months in jail after he pleaded guilty to seaman’s manslaughter and making false statements. He sentenced Patrick Ryan, director of ferry operations for the New York City Department of Transportation and the highest ranking of five people indicted in the accident, to a year and a day in jail after Ryan also pleaded guilty to related charges.

Both men apologized in court for their roles in the October 2003 accident that left 11 dead, the Associated Press reported. 

The January sentencing came shortly after a federal probation officer suggested much less jail time — three months for Smith and six months for Ryan — and criticized the city transportation department.

Tony Garoppolo told the judge, who had asked for his advice, that he has been immersed in documents connected with the case for a long time. “The more I see, the more strongly I conclude that managerial and personnel deficiencies at the DOT led to mediocre supervision of its ferry service and compromised safety,” he said in his report on Ryan. The executive “significantly shares the blame, but it is not appropriate that he bear the full weight of management failures which contributed to this horrific accident.”

One of the failures was not having in place “a safety mechanism in the event of a ferry pilot incurring a sudden and severe disability while at the wheel of the ferry,” Garoppolo said.

At issue is a rule that requires two pilots be immediately available to navigate the vessel in case one was suddenly disabled. Prosecutors alleged the rule was never enforced or even distributed to ferry crews. The accident occurred after Smith, who was alone in the pilothouse, lost consciousness as the ferry approached the pier.

Garoppolo said both Ryan and Smith bore responsibility in the crash. And, he said in his report on Smith, “It is legitimate to attempt to deter other licensed marine pilots from failing to disclose medical conditions and medications which could adversely impact on work performance, since the safety of passengers and crew is at stake. Further, the defendant shares significantly in the culpability for this horrendous accident since he submitted false medical information when applying to renew his license.

“We will probably never know with any certainty why the defendant became suddenly disabled while at the wheel of the ferry. I view the ‘lion’s’ share of culpability in this case as resting with the higher level management of the ferry service.”

City attorney Lawrence Kahn took issue with Garoppolo’s report.
“The city strongly disagrees with the conclusory and many unsupported ‘findings’ in this probation officer’s report, which were clearly based on incomplete and one-sided information,” Kahn said, “but because of the pending legal proceedings in this matter, we believe it would be inappropriate to comment further.” 

As for medical disclosure rules, Garoppolo called them “flawed safety tools since they can instigate as well as curb potentially hazardous situations. They create an obvious incentive for pilots not to obtain medical help, including prescription drugs, for rather commonplace, middle-age medical conditions such as insomnia, depression and substantial physical pain lest the pilot jeopardize his or her livelihood.”

Nevertheless, he said, Smith deserved a short prison sentence “to reinforce the message to other licensed pilots about the importance of fitness for duty and medical disclosure.” 

Dale K. DuPont 


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