Oct 15, 7:10 PM EDT

10 Dead, 34 Hurt in Staten I. Ferry Crash

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- A Staten Island ferry slammed into a pier as it was docking Wednesday, killing at least 10 people, tearing off victims' limbs and sending passengers leaping into the water, officials said. At least 34 were injured.

The 310-foot ferry, carrying about 1,500 passengers, plowed into the enormous wooden pilings on the Staten Island end of its run from Manhattan, reducing the front of the mighty boat to a mass of shattered planks, broken glass and twisted steel.

The crash happened on a windswept afternoon, with gusts over 40 mph and the water in New York Harbor very choppy.

"Everyone just jumped for their lives," rider Bob Carroll told TV station NY1. "It was like an absolute horror. ... The whole side of the boat looked like an opener on a can."

At least 10 people were killed and 34 injured, said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, making it New York's worst mass transit accident in at least a generation. Some bodies were accidentally counted twice, leading to an initial report by city officials that 14 people were dead.

Firefighters picked their way through the debris aboard the ship, the Andrew J. Barberi, in a search for victims, and Coast Guard divers searched the water. At least one body was recovered from the water.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known, although Bloomberg suggested the heavy wind as a possibility. The National Transportation Safety Board convened an accident investigation team, which will look at the weather, among other possible factors.

The ferry's crew will be interviewed and tested for drugs and alcohol, Bloomberg said. The ship's captain fled the scene and was tracked down by police at his Staten Island home, said a high-ranking police source speaking on condition of anonymity.

Commuters were trapped in piles of debris aboard the 22-year-old ferry, and victims screamed and dove for cover as metal crunched into wood just before the start of the evening rush hour, tearing girders, splintering planks and ripping a huge hole in the side of the vessel.

"The ferry was coming too fast," said witness William Gonzalez, who lives in a nearby apartment complex. "They had no control to stop the boat."

"People who were sitting there as the ferry docked were hit by the pilings that came through the side of the boat," the mayor said. The pilings hit on the ferry's main deck, crashing into windows that ordinarily afford a postcard view of the Statue of Liberty.

The accident ended an otherwise routine trip to Staten Island from lower Manhattan, a five-mile crossing that usually takes 25 minutes. A free ride on the Staten Island Ferry is one of the city's most beloved attractions to New Yorkers and tourists alike, taking visitors past the Statue of Liberty and giving them a Hollywood-style view of lower Manhattan's skyscrapers.

"There were numerous injuries like fractures and lacerations," said Fire Department spokeswoman Maria Lamberti. "There were a couple of people with amputations - legs and arms."

Victims also suffered back and spinal injuries, chest pains, and hypothermia from the water, which was about 62 degrees.

The three-level, bright-orange has a capacity of 6,000 passengers,

The seven boats that make up the Staten Island Ferry fleet carry 70,000 commuters a day between Staten Island and lower Manhattan. The boats make 104 daily trips between the two boroughs. The Andrew J. Barberi travels at about 18 mph.

Service was suspended on all of the Staten Island ferries after the accident.

The mayor, who was attending the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox game with the American League pennant on the line, left Yankee Stadium to head to the scene. He boarded the ferry to assess the damage himself.

Steamboat ferries began operating between Manhattan and Staten Island in 1817. A railroad company ran the ferry from 1884 until 1905, when it was taken over by the city. It is now run by the city Transportation Department.

In 1997, a car plunged off the ferry as it was docking in Staten Island, causing minor injuries to the driver and a deckhand who was knocked overboard by the car.