News & Politics

Bloomberg and Schumer Happy About Ferry Cash, Reminding Us of a Certain Fatal Crash

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By Tom Feeney Jr.

When Mike Bloomberg announced the injection of nearly $50 million of federal stimulus funds into the maintenance of the Staten Island Ferry recently, he issued a press release also crediting US senator Charles Schumer and other members of the New York’s congressional delegation.

Bloomberg’s kind words for Schumer, however, bring to mind the fact that Schumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall, was the Department of Transportation commissioner overseeing ferry operations at the time of the October 15, 2003 fatal crash that cost 11 passengers their lives. Bloomberg did nothing to hold Weinshall accountable for the failings of her department that led up to the catastrophe. A Voice review of three government reports about the crash raises damaging questions into Weinshall’s role in the debacle, making it another example of the mayors’ aversion to accountability when it comes to top-level city officials. (As seen in the Voice‘s cover story “Bloomberg’s biggest scandal — the Deutsche Bank fire — should be his downfall. Why Isn’t It?”) 

Rudy Giuliani appointed Weinshall to the DOT post in September 2000.
She was commissioner for more than three years prior to accident, when
well documented mismanagement of the ferry service occurred, and
remained commissioner for nearly four years after it. Yet during that
time, Bloomberg never said a critical word about the agencies
mishandling of the ferry. When Weinshall left in April 2007 for a job
as Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Construction and Management
at CUNY, the mayor had only praise for her, saying he “was fortunate
that she agreed to stay on and serve” for what Bloomberg called “an
extraordinary seven year tenure.” Weinshall did not return a call to
the Voice after the paper reached the CUNY’s office of media relations.

The
initial finger pointing from the press was directed at Richard Smith,
the pilot of the vessel who was under the influence of painkillers when
he dozed off, allowing the ferry to slam full speed into a concrete
pier. But lost in the outrage was the developing evidence against
Weinshall, who was given a pass by the mayor, just as he gave a pass to
Nicholas Scoppetta, Dan Doctoroff, and Robert LiMandri in the
deconstruction of the Deutsche Bank building that cost two firefighters
their lives. In both instances, the widespread disregard of a crucial
operating rule led to tragedy. At the Deutsche Bank building, the FDNY
ignored the fifteen-day building inspection rule. With the ferry, it
was the DOT’s lack of enforcement of the two-pilot rule.

The two-pilot rule
was created in 1908 to assure that two pilots be in the pilot house at
all times. But just like the fifteen-day rule, which was never taken
seriously by FDNY top management at the Deutsche Bank building, the
two-pilot rule was never enforced under Weinshall. The independent
federal probation report, presented by chief probation officer Tony
Garoppolo of the Eastern District, put it into perspective:

“There
was a dangerous, systematic breakdown in the NYC ferry operations at
the time of the accident since the Two Pilot Rule was not distributed
and enforced, and the need for two pilots in the pilothouse is most
compelling when a ferry approaches the terminal,” Garoppolo said. “This
critical safety procedure was designed to prevent an accident under the
very circumstances present in this case.”

Despite Garoppolo’s
report, where he explicitly said that he viewed “the lion’s share of
culpability in this case as resting with the high level management of
the Ferry Service,” Bloomberg failed to discipline any of the Staten
Island Ferry brass. Instead, the criticism and criminal sentencing
stopped at the Port Captain Patrick Ryan, who went to prison for a year
and a day.

The most puzzling part of Ryan’s sentence was that
Ryan’s boss, former Assistant Commissioner for Municipal Ferry
Operations Joseph Albano, spent not a day in jail.
When Weinshall
took over as DOT commissioner in 2000, she named Albano Assistant
Commissioner of Ferry Operations, despite the fact that he had zero
previous maritime experience.

Albano was so out of place as
ferry boss that it prompted the probation report to say that “Albano
should never have been in the position of running the ferry service. He
was unqualified for a position of running the ferry service.” The
report also took Weinshall to task, saying that “the individual(s) who
were responsible for placing an unqualified person in charge of a large
municipal ferry service also have a share of responsibility for the
accident.”

Albano’s poor performance caused the city to
completely abolish his former position as Assistant Commissioner for
Ferry Operations, and replace it with a maritime experienced Chief
Operating Officer. Albano quietly retired a year after the crash. In
addition to the eleven lives lost, the city has also agreed to pay
$65.5 million to both injured passengers and families of the victims,
with twelve cases still pending.

In addition to the probation
report, two other reports were conducted, faulting DOT’s oversight of
the ferry operation. One was written by the National Transportation
Safety Board (NTSB), which the mayor has been repeatedly citing in the
aftermath of last weekends midair collision. And the other by the
Global Maritime and Transportation School (GMATS), which is a New York
based school that offers training programs to private and public
transportation systems.

The NTSB report pointed out that while
the Staten Island Ferry had the second largest ridership in the United
States, transporting 19 million passengers a year, it still “lacked
many of the technological innovations that can assist operators during
restricted visibility conditions.” In contrast, those in charge of the
Washington State Ferries, which transport 26 million riders annually,
install new radar equipment every five years. According to the report,
prior to the crash the ferry “lacked even such basic instrumentation as
speed indicators.” In response to the report, Weinshall complied with
the implementation of a Safety Management System, revamping the ferry
with new technology and operating procedures.

The Maritime
Report also identified primitive equipment on the ferry at the time of
the accident. These deficiencies ranged from on-board blueprints,
operational checklists to “reduce potential for complacency,” and
Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus’, a staple piece of rescue equipment
for first-responders since the early 1900’s

The report also
found that the ferry only had rowboats that were “antiquated, low free
board, and manually powered,” insufficient to rescue the up to 6,000
passengers that sometimes board the ferry. After the accident,
Weinshall corrected some of these deficiencies as well.

Prior
to the crash, the ferry system was “95 persons short” of the staff
members required to implement the Safety Management System, according
to the same Maritime School report. Low funding levels “contributed to
the apparent erosion of the overall ferry system organization.”  The
ferry crew was overworked and underpaid, to the point that the ferry
employees were required to use vacation time to attend training.

The
reports all suggest that patronage was common practice in the ferry
system, and that Weinshall left it unregulated. So bad, that the
Maritime School report actually went on to credit the ferry system for
how it performed under these conditions, claiming that “the Staten
Island Ferry system appears to be a good operation overall, considering
the existence of a corporate culture with the ferry organization which
may not be conducive to operating a first-rate marine transportation
system.”