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Officials: 85 injured, 2 critically, in NYC ferry crash

Emergency personnel at scene of a ferry accident

Emergency personnel at scene of a ferry accident in lower Manhattan Wednesday morning. (Jan. 9, 2012) Photo Credit: C.S. Muncy

A high-speed commuter ferry carrying more than 300 people slammed into a boat slip in lower Manhattan during the morning rush Wednesday, injuring at least 85 passengers, including two critically.

Riders on the Seastreak Wall Street, traveling from Atlantic Highlands, N.J., to Manhattan, described a jolt, bodies falling and flying across each other; broken windows and blood. Electronic devices, coffee cups and other items were tossed around the ferry's interior.

The National Transportation Safety Board team will spend the next five to seven days investigating the crash, interviewing crew members, looking into whether the company complied with regulations, and checking for any human error, board member Robert L. Sumwalt said.

Breath alcohol tests of the captain and crew were negative, James Barker Jr., president of Seastreak, said.

Sumwalt said he believed the boat does not have a voice and data recorder, but its "sophisticated electronics" may allow investigators to retrieve data, such as the boat's speed. Investigators also will look at whether the vessel's propulsion system, retrofitted about a year ago, played a role in the accident.

Firefighters and emergency personnel treated dozens of bloodied and dazed passengers after the 8:43 a.m. crash, placing them on stretchers spread along a dock near the South Street Seaport. Many reported head injuries from being thrown about the boat, which hit the dock at a speed estimated to be about 12 miles per hour.

Passenger Brett Cebulash, 50, of Sandy Hook, N.J., was on the top level of the boat when it bounced against the dock, the impact causing a man sitting across from him to fly "from his seat and . . . [land] on my lap," he said.

The New York City Office of Emergency Management Wednesday night reported a total of 85 people injured in the crash, including 57 treated or transported to hospitals by the FDNY. Eleven people were seriously hurt, but none of the injuries was life-threatening, fire officials said. One of the critically injured passengers was taken to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center and the other to New York Downtown Hospital, officials said without identifying the passengers.

"We want to find out why those injuries occurred," Sumwalt said. "Were people standing when they should have been seated? What part of the vessel were they in when the collision occurred? We want to look at anything that might have contributed to the injuries."

A gash that measured several feet long was visible in the aluminum hull of the Seastreak after the crash. The commuter ferry makes daily trips from Atlantic Highlands and Conners Highlands, N.J., to Pier 11 Wall Street. The New Jersey company operates five ferries in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

The 140-foot boat had 326 passengers and five crew members aboard and was moving at 10 to 12 knots -- 12 to 13 mph -- toward Pier 11 on the East River when it hit the pier's Slip D, then continued to hit Slip B, said Janette Sadik-Khan, the New York City transportation commissioner.

Jason Monach, 40, a diver making repairs near the dock, was on the esplanade, facing the pier, and heard a "bang" just before the collision, he said.

"I saw the ferry come close to the dock, clipping it and bouncing backward," Monach said.

Jacqueline Wegner, of Highlands, N.J., said that when passengers began to emerge from the ferry, "There was lots of blood. I saw a man with a broken hand."

Officials identified the captain as Jason Reimer, who had about 10 years' experience with the company, The Associated Press reported. Reimer lives in New Jersey, records show.

"We're sorry people were injured. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families," said Tom Winn, a spokesman for Seastreak.

The Seastreak Wall Street has been involved in two accidents since 2009, according to Coast Guard records.

On Aug. 12, 2009, while docking at East 35th Street, the starboard bow of the vessel received a 2-foot to 3-foot tear about 6 to 7 feet above the water line, according to records. On Jan. 29, 2010, the Seastreak hit a cluster of fender piles, again while docking, records show. No injuries were reported in either incident.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last month announced plans to expand the East River Ferry service to make commuting by boat more available.

The worst ferry crash in recent years occurred in October 2003, when 11 people died after a Staten Island Ferry ran into a pier after its pilot passed out.

He pleaded guilty to manslaughter after admitting he took pain medication before piloting the ferry.

Evidence of Wednesday's chaotic scene was found throughout the boat's interior, said Joseph F. Bruno, city Emergency Management commissioner.

"Personal items all over. Food all over. The cafeteria area -- the coffee machine pulled down. One of the partition glass windows is broken," Bruno said. "It's eerie, in a certain way, to see it."

With Maria Alvarez,

Anthony M. DeStefano, Gary Dymski, Joseph Mallia and Ivan Pereira

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