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Ferry's skipper says thrust controls failed before crash

By David Ariosto, CNN
updated 6:01 PM EST, Thu January 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • National Transportation Safety Board investigates cause of crash that injured 85
  • The skipper said the commuter vessel's "reverse thrust control" did not respond
  • The ferry struck the pier and tossed unsuspecting passengers like rag dolls
  • This is not the first time this vessel has been involved in a crash

(CNN) -- As an experienced ferry boat captain steered his vessel across the Hudson River toward a Lower Manhattan pier, two diesel engines shut off while he frantically tried to avoid a crash, federal investigators said Thursday.

The 36-year-old skipper said the commuter vessel's "reverse thrust control" did not respond as it careened toward Manhattan's Pier 11, near Wall Street, with 326 passengers aboard, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The federal agency is investigating what caused the Wednesday morning crash that left 85 people injured, including one in critical condition.

Among those being interviewed is the Seastreak ferry's engineer, whose first language is Burmese and who requires an interpreter, NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt said Thursday.

The ferry struck the pier at 8:41 a.m. and tossed unsuspecting passengers like rag dolls.

"I saw a lot of bleeding heads with white bandages (and) a lot of people strapped to boards," said passerby Julie Westfall.

"It felt like we were in a car crash," said passenger Elizabeth Banta, who watched in horror as medical personnel began triage on dozens at the scene.

As the vessel approached, witnesses said, commuters had gotten up from their seats and packed closer to the ferry exits and atop stairwells, a typical occurrence at the end of the 40-minute commute.

But those perches may have magnified the effects of the crash, as passengers fell down stairwells and against windows.

"We know that they hit the pier at a relatively high rate of speed," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Gordon Loebl, who estimated that the boat had been traveling at about 14 knots, or 16 mph.

After the crash, the front of the ship bore a large gash.

The ferry, privately operated by Seastreak LLC, provides daily service from New Jersey to piers in Lower Manhattan.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with those that were injured," Seastreak said in a written statement, adding that it would work with authorities to determine the cause.

This is not the first time this vessel has been involved in a crash.

Coast Guard records indicate that the same Seastreak ferry in 2009 slammed into a New Jersey dock and tore a 2- to 3-foot gash in the starboard bow of the vessel.

A year later, a collision with a dock pile punctured a hole in the port side of the same boat.

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