NEW YORK (AP) — While federal officials investigate why a commuter ferry crashed into a lower Manhattan dock, maritime experts said Thursday that safely landing such a large vessel is a sensitive endeavor that requires deep skill and factoring in currents, the number of passengers onboard — and even the moon.
Bill Allen, a retired Staten Island Ferry captain who worked in New York Harbor for two decades, said it's something passengers take for granted.
"It's not like driving a bus, where you come up to a stop and just put the brakes on. It's a whole different ballgame," he said.
The Seastreak Wall Street made a hard landing in New York on Wednesday, hurling scores of people down stairs and into walls at the end of a routine commute across New York Bay past the Statue of Liberty. Around 70 were hurt, 11 seriously.
Though there have been a few ferry accidents in recent years, there are hundreds of trips each day by companies shuttling commuters around waterways, each ending with soft, seamless landings.
Yet, near the end of the route the Seastreak Wall Street travels is an area known to captains as "the spider," where a weave of currents converge and can cause headaches for pilots.
"That particular area in the East River is difficult to begin with," said Allen, who had a perfect safety record. "When you make a landing with a ferry, no matter what kind, you come in riding with the current, or you're riding against it, so you're either powering up to buck that current or not, and that depends on the time and the day."
The cause of the Wednesday morning rush hour crash is under investigation. Police said the boat's crew passed alcohol breath tests given after the crash. Crew members also took drug tests, the results of which weren't immediately available.
At the time, the Seastreak Wall Street was going about 13 miles an hour, which is fast for the usual crawl into the slip, but not necessarily for turning into the area, experts said. After the impact, the boat was able to dock normally.
The ferry had recently undergone a major overhaul that gave it new engines and a new propulsion system, and officials are looking into whether they played a role.
Jonathan Moro, who pilots a DC Harbor Cruises ferry in Washington, said the engine change would be very obvious to the captain, but whether it would change the landing depended on the person at the helm.
"If you ask 50 different captains, you will get 50 different ways to dock," he said. "There is really no set way."
Capt. John Hagedorn, a professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., said in order to dock any vessel, pilots must first learn about it; the length, the weight, the height and the engines. From there, they study variables like the number of people on board, the moon and tides, current and winds.
"It's all about experience," Hagedorn said. "Experience is what gives the mariner the ability to put the knowledge about the vessel together with the knowledge about the environment in order to get the vessel where he wants it to go."
The Seastreak Wall Street's pilot, Jason Reimer, was experienced seaman. In a 2004 profile in Newsday, Reimer said he had joined Seastreak as a deckhand in 1997 and became a captain three years later at age 23. Company chief James Barker called him "a great guy."
About 330 passengers and crew members were aboard the ferry, which had arrived from Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Some passengers were bloodied when they banged into walls and toppled to the floor.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday was interviewing crew members and inspecting the vessel, a process NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said would take all day.
He said the vessel did not have a data recorder and was not required to have one. But he said that wouldn't hinder the investigation.
Investigators also were documenting the damage on the pier and combing through the ferry's maintenance records.
In 2003, 11 people were killed when a Staten Island Ferry crashed into a pier after its pilot passed out at the wheel. In 2010, three people were badly hurt and about 40 were injured when the same ferry hit the same pier because of a mechanical problem.