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Poor oversight noted in N.Y. ferry crash

WASHINGTON -- A federal safety board yesterday sharply criticized New York City and the Coast Guard in the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash that killed 11 passengers, saying tougher medical screening of ferry captains and safer operating procedures were needed.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the city's oversight was partly to blame for the crash, but stopped short of saying the Coast Guard's current system directly caused the deadly Oct. 15, 2003, accident.

NTSB chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners said the crash ''was a wake-up call to all modes of transportation," and said closer review was needed of the effect of certain prescription drugs on transportation workers.

The recommendations for the Coast Guard could greatly expand the amount of work the agency does nationwide to check the health of boat pilots responsible for large numbers of water-crossing commuters.

Ferry services in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington state have a combined annual ridership of about 53.5 million people.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet said the proposed changes would require ''fairly intense efforts." She said, ''It's too soon to say what we would possibly do in response."

New York City's commissioner of transportation, Iris Weinshall, said the city had already adopted some of the recommendations -- but not all -- for accident-averting technology in ferry wheelhouses.

Weinshall said the agency was hiring dozens of additional staff to improve performance, and crafting a new systemwide safety program with help from outside specialists.

The Staten Island ferries have an annual ridership of 19 million, and the crash of the Andrew J. Barberi was one of the worst mass-transit disasters in New York history. Eleven people died and more than 70 hurt were hurt when the ferry's pilot apparently blacked out and the big boat slammed into a maintenance pier.

Ferry pilot Richard Smith pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, acknowledging he neglected his duties by taking medications that made him lose consciousness. Several others were charged in connection with the crash.

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