A captain’s error, compounded by confusing controls and lax safety regulations, led to the January 2013 ferry crash that injured 80 people in Lower Manhattan, federal investigators said Tuesday.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said the ferry’s captain, Jason Reimer, lost control of the Seastreak Wall Street while attempting to dock after “inadvertently” leaving the vessel running on a rarely used backup system.
The veteran mariner scrambled to regain control of the 131-foot vessel, but had little time and no visual or audio cues to quickly alert him to his error, investigators said.
Investigators, discussing the findings at a safety board hearing in Washington, D.C., blamed ferry operator Seastreak LLC, for “ineffective oversight” and said Reimer was hampered by a lack of training and a lack of use and familiarity with the backup system.
A message left at a number listed under Reimer’s name was not immediately returned.
A spokesman for Seastreak, which operates seven passenger vessels, said he couldn’t comment on the NTSB’s findings until the company receives a formal report in three or four weeks.
Spokesman Tom Wynne said Seastreak is “actively engaged” in operating a “very safe ferry operation” and looks forward to reviewing and implementing the NTSB’s recommendations.
Reimer switched to the system after sensing a vibration in a propeller just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, about halfway in the commuter ferry’s midmorning run from Atlantic Highlands, N.J. to Lower Manhattan.
In backup mode, the propellers remain angled forward, causing the ferry to increase forward speed instead of slowing down, investigators said.
The switch should have been temporary, but Reimer left the ferry on the backup system for the rest of the voyage and it slammed into a dock near the South Street Seaport, sending passengers into walls and knocking them to the floor.
One person sustained a severe head injury falling down a stairwell.
“We know that some people’s lives were changed forever by this accident,” the board’s outgoing chairwoman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, said.
“Passengers boarded that morning expecting to arrive safely in Manhattan, many of them to make their daily living. Instead, some have injuries so serious they are lucky to be alive today,” Hersman said.
The board pushed the U.S. Coast Guard to mandate data recorders and force ferry operators to adopt regimented safety protocols. The board also recommended barring passengers from standing in stairwells.
Data recorders are required on many international passenger and cargo ships, but not on U.S. vessels. The safety protocols, known in the industry as a safety management system, were first developed after 193 people died in the 1987 sinking of a British ferry.
Safety board member Robert L. Sumwalt said the Coast Guard has agreed to study the requirement, but “nothing tangible has been done” and the adoption of a safety management system remains voluntary.
Wynne said Seastreak is in the process of implementing its own safety management system. The Staten Island Ferry, operated by the New York City Transportation Department, adopted a safety management system prior to a 2010 crash.
“We are many, many years from making sure we have that one level of safety,” Sumwalt said. “Right now, you have a disparity between someone getting on one ferry boat and three or four blocks down the road they get on another one that does not have it.”
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