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On Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003, a half-full Staten Island commuter ferry – named after legendary New York high school football coach Andrew J. Barberi – neared its destination a short nautical distance across the Upper New York Harbor from New York City’s Manhattan Island on a sunny, windy afternoon. Passengers crowded near the lower fore deck in order to be among the first off after the boat docked and lowered its ramp, eager to get home from the business or errands that had taken them into the city.

Residents of Staten Island enjoy an idyllic commute from their comparatively suburban island and are doubly blessed because it doesn’t cost them a penny. Many are such regular passengers they claim favorite seats along the outer perimeter of the ferry chosen to best enjoy the awe-inspiring urban scenery across the water.

That day, the ship – which carries 1,500 people at peak hours – failed to reduce speed and tore into a cement dock. This free ride cost 10 people their lives and injured and dismembered 34 others.

Remarkably, a highly planned and coordinated response by city, state, federal and private agencies saw to it that loss of life was minimized. Within minutes after the crash, first responders were on the scene. By the next morning, service on the ferry line was back to normal, with only the battered ferry tied up at a repair dock as evidence to commuters that a disaster had occurred. (After investigators had combed the vessel for clues, she was towed away days later.)


The dryly-worded NTSB advisory, which gave the world official notice of the crash, said, “On Oct. 15, 2003, at 3:20 p.m., while on a regularly scheduled run between lower Manhattan (Whitehall Terminal) and Staten Island (St. George Terminal), the 310-foot Staten Island passenger ferry Andrew J. Barberi struck a pier at the St. George Terminal. There were 10 passengers killed and over 30 injuries.”

The New York City Police Department and Fire Department were the first responders. Police from the 102nd Precinct, directly across the street from the terminal, arrived instantly to begin the work of freeing critically injured passengers from a tangle of wreckage. Stunned passengers pitched in to free fellow commuters as well. Soon a host of agencies had convened in a process that at first seemed chaotic but would become a smoothly orchestrated relief effort.

“The New York City Office of Emergency Management is responsible for coordinating the efforts of all the agencies working together,” said Jarrod Bernstein, press officer for the OEM. “We helped coordinate the deliveries of materials, such as wood for bracing and special equipment, made sure the American Red Cross was there with their canteen trucks, and conducted inter-agency meetings.”

According to Bernstein, other agencies on the scene included Emergency Medical Service, New York City’s Department of Transportation, Department of Buildings, the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the New York City Family Assistance Center.

Chaos and redundancy were avoided, according to Bernstein, because the relief workers “are trained professionals. They do this every day.”

Perhaps they do relief work every day, but rarely work of this magnitude. In a city as large as New York, there are a multitude of daily disasters. The agencies set up to handle them get plenty of experience. New York’s OEM and The American Red Cross of Greater New York each routinely handles about eight disasters a day including such things as fires, water main breaks, blackouts, and building collapses.

“It’s part of the job,” said Bernstein. “The hours are long and it can get stressful, but the important thing is helping people.”

According to Virginia Mewborn, director of disaster services for the American Red Cross of Greater New York, its Disaster Action Team was there within 15 minutes along with an emergency response vehicle. The team, a group of volunteers based in Staten Island, began collecting information and worked to set up a Family Assistance Center.

“Any time there is a disaster where there are a number of casualties we will set up a Family Assistance Center,” said Mewborn. “What we have learned from past experience is that when families cannot find their loved ones, they want to go to the site. In this case all the families started to appear at the ferry terminal so we set up a family assistance center at the court building in the jury room a block and a half from the ferry site where we had people registering family members, recording names of the missing, any distinguishing features like what were they wearing that might help in the identification of those who had been transported to the hospital. We also had mental health workers that were in the FAC to work with the waiting families.”

According to Mewborn, cell phones have revolutionized disaster recovery. “I remember one woman who was visibly upset until her phone rang. She found out that the loved one she was looking for was at home and she screams, ‘He’s alive! He’s alive!’ Then she yelled, ‘I’m going to kill him when I get home.’”

For Mewborn, who has worked several mass casualty incidents as well as a number of airline disasters – including TWA’s Flight 800 which crashed off Long Island in 1997 and the Egypt Air crash off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., in 2000 (where there were no survivors) – watching people find their lost family members was a hopeful experience.
The OEM helped the Red Cross obtain access to the courthouse and the NYPD made sure the area was secure. “A report on the August Northeast blackout was valuable in improving procedures,” said Bernstein. “The city learned a lot from that outage.”

“The police department was helping with transports and taking the missing persons reports,” said Mewborn. “We work collaboratively with the press and if families want to talk to reporters we will work with them to do that. Sometimes when people are in an emotional state, they just want to talk and talk and if they had not been so emotional they might not have done that so we want to make sure that they are making the best decision for them.”

The agencies have learned – after airline crashes, the power outage, and, of course, Sept. 11 – about the crucial importance of collaboration.

“We attended a number of inter-agency meetings with the police department, the fire department, the office of emergency management, the medical examiner, the community assistance unit to ensure that the needs of the families were being met,” said Mewborn. “We were in the Family Assistance Center until around 1 a.m. The families that were missing loved ones went home. They had talked with the medical examiner and that night they made eight identifications. So, eight families knew the status of their loved ones. We worked with them on that, and that was really the extent of our involvement because one of the things we want to do is make sure that we are providing them with resources in their own community.”

Beyond food, clothing and shelter, the Red Cross strives to provide emotional support to those in need of it.

“We work with people, so they know what is a normal reaction to disaster is and what is abnormal,” said Mewborn. “Anytime you deal with something as traumatic as a disaster there may be tears, there may be sleeplessness and that’s expected. If it continues over a long-term basis, that’s when we will provide referrals to community resources.”

The National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene within hours. Established by the federal government in 1967, initially to investigate aviation accidents, this independent agency now investigates all major public transportation accidents in an attempt to improve safety. The board is charged with objectivity. By law, the conclusions of its investigations cannot be subpoenaed to be used as legal evidence.

As NTSB Chairperson Ellen Engleman, who is running this investigation, explains, “Our goal is to obtain all the factual information possible so that we can make safety recommendations that will save lives. A separate but equally important goal is to provide families touched by the disaster with as much information as possible.”

At the heart of the NTSB’s investigation process is the GO Team, comprised of experts in pertinent fields. At any given time, team members are on-call by pager, ready with necessary tools of their trade to leave immediately when the need arises. In the case of the Staten Island Ferry accident, 12 experts in the fields of marine engineering, human performance, deck operations, and survival factors arrived on the scene within two to seven hours of the event to conduct exhaustive interviews with crew, passengers, bystanders, and victims. Later, nautical experts tested the navigation and propulsion systems of the Andrew Barberi.

In her Nov. 4, 2003, testimony before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the U.S. House of Representatives regarding the Staten Island Ferry Accident, Engleman outlined the investigative duties of the four groups on the NTSB Go team:
“The systems group tested the steering and propulsion systems of the ferry and examined the navigation equipment on board the Andrew J. Barberi.

“The deck operations group documented ferry operations in general and is working on establishing a chain of events in the Barberi’s pilothouse leading up to, during, and immediately following the accident.

“The human performance group takes a 72-hour history of the operating crew, records post-accident toxicological testing results, and the physiological and psychological condition of critical crew members, investigates relevant crew medical and personnel history and examines company policies, procedures, and practices related to the operation of the ferries.

“The survival group documents shipboard warning and emergency systems as well as emergency response by crewmen, and police, fire, and rescue personnel and will verify and record the deaths and injuries sustained in the accident.

“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.

“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 onsite phase of the NTSB inquiry is completed and Engleman expects the investigation to be concluded and a report – including safety recommendations – issued in about 12 months, then, the public may finally be able to understand exactly what transpired Oct. 15, 2003, on the Andrew J. Barberi.”

According to Engleman, “The Staten Island Ferry accident was both horrible and horrific. I was personally there to witness the devastation, as well as the tremendous response at all levels of government.”

Mewborn attributes a large part of the success of the Red Cross’ relief efforts to a core group of about 400 very active volunteers who are willing to leave their jobs at a moment’s notice.
“It’s through people like that that we’re able to do the good work that we do,” said Mewborn.

Because of the nature of this disaster, the Red Cross and FEMA were not called upon to perform customary functions like finding emergency housing or arranging small business loans. Still, says Mewborn, her people performed admirably. She also praises the resiliency of New Yorkers. Admitting that her job is stressful, she cites the great people she works with, and their collective sense of humor as things that make it bearable.
“The fact that at the end of the day, when I go home – whatever time that may be – I know that I’ve helped somebody,” said Mewborn. “That’s what keeps me moving forward.”

Debora Gilbert is a Perm-A-Store dealer and a writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.