Ferry captain refuses to meet with investigators

Thursday, October 23, 2003

NEW YORK -- The city Wednesday moved to fire the Staten Island Ferry captain involved in last week's fatal crash after he refused for a second day to meet with federal investigators.

"We are drawing up charges as we speak based on his refusal to cooperate," said Iris Weinshall, city transportation commissioner.

Michael Gansas, who supervised the pilot operating the ferry when the crash occurred, had refused to meet with National Transportation Safety Board investigators on Tuesday, prompting federal officials to issue a subpoena. On Wednesday, Gansas' attorney, Stephen Sheinbaum, said his client remained too traumatized to speak with investigators and was under medical care.

Gansas failed to show up at the Staten Island hotel where he was supposed to meet with NTSB officials.

"Mr. Gansas remains with his family as they try to deal with the tragic consequences of last week's events," Sheinbaum said. "Mr. Gansas is being unfairly vilified by those who should know better."

Sheinbaum added that Gansas plans to cooperate when he is "legally and medically free to do so."

Hours before the scheduled meeting, Weinshall said she notified Gansas that he was suspended effective immediately over his refusal to cooperate.

The NTSB issued a statement late Wednesday saying it has asked Gansas' attorneys to provide documents "supporting their claim that the captain was medically unable to appear in response to a subpoena."

"As recently as Tuesday night, the attorneys indicated that the captain would appear at the appointed time and place," the NTSB said.

The captain's whereabouts at the time of the Oct. 15 crash are considered a vital element of the probe because he could have provided backup if, as investigators suspect, the pilot, Richard Smith, blacked out at the throttle before the ferry plowed into a pier, killing 10 people and injuring dozens.

Smith, the assistant captain, remained in critical condition and unable to talk after attempting suicide, his attorney said.

State Rep. Vito Fossella, who represents Staten Island, suggested that the borough's district attorney empanel a special grand jury to question the captain if he refuses to speak to federal authorities. The DA's office is also investigating the crash.

Fossella said that federal investigators told him that "all indications are there was another crew member in the wheelhouse prior to the impact," but it wasn't the captain.

"I think the crux of this investigation is going to hinge upon the information provided by the two captains," Fossella said, "and that has yet to take place."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said earlier that it was "an outrage that somebody who can give us information to perhaps find out how we can improve service refuses to talk. A person like that has no business working for the city, and we will take every legal action we can to get his testimony."

Bloomberg also said that the city will institute reforms including requiring an extra person to be in the pilot's cabin while the ferry is crossing New York Harbor. Current rules require a second person to be in the wheelhouse only during docking.

The ferries will also be outfitted with new radios and global positioning satellite technology, he said.

Some investigators have speculated that Smith's blood pressure medication may have caused him to lose consciousness.

Gansas told police immediately after the accident that he was in the pilot house and that he tried to pull Smith off the controls after he lost consciousness, an official familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press.

At least one deckhand has told investigators that Gansas was not in the pilot house, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The deckhand's account was questioned by Gansas, who said the crew member was not in a position to see anyone in the pilot house, the official said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, five people had filed their intentions to sue the city, including Debra Castro, who had both her legs amputated during the crash and is seeking $120 million.

Sheinbaum said Gansas has earned commendations for saving lives, including "once leaping into the water and putting his own life at risk." The city Department of Transportation, which maintains the ferry fleet, confirmed that Gansas received a commendation in 1991.

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