Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

October 18th, 2003:

Ferry crash

During one of the brief times that I got to do a little websurfing last week, I was shocked to read (via Making Light) that there had been a deadly crash involving the Staten Island Ferry. I took the Ferry every day through four years of high school and two summer jobs, and though I was once on board for a ferry accident, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this one.

It was May 6, 1981, during my freshman year at Stuyvesant High School. I was on the 7 AM ferry, the American Legion, sitting on the top deck with other Stuy kids. It was a very foggy day, a common enough occurrance, but sufficiently foggy that visibility was a few feet. I was peacefully reading the New York Post (my usual habit back then – we got the Daily News home-delivered, and I could get the Times at school) when out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone a row away get up and run towards the back of the boat. I was puzzling over this when I realized that everyone, myself included, was now doing the same thing, and the reason was immediately apparent – another ship was headed right at us, on the right.

It was, I later learned, a Norwegian freighter called the Hoek Orchid. It wasn’t going very fast, but it was a lot bigger than the Legion, and it plowed right into us. Wood splintered, glass shattered, the Legion groaned and rocked leftward, and we all watched in awe. The impact slowed the Orchid to a stop, then after a few seconds it backed out and disappeared into the fog again.

I don’t really know how far the ferry was from Manhattan, but it reversed engines and headed back to Staten Island, where a bunch of ambulances dealt with the injured. My friends and I were all fine, just shaken up. As it happened, my parents were visiting England at the time and my grandparents were staying with us. I called home and had my grandmother come and get me, figuring that the stars were telling me that this was not a good day to go to school. It was the only day I missed that year.

My next door neighbor Lizzie, who attended the High School for the Performing Arts (you know, the school from Fame, which we just called “PA”), remembered in time that she was carrying a camera with her. She took a roll of photos, including some that showed the bow of the Orchid piercing the walls of the Legion, and sold them to the Post for $500. They ran one of her pics on the front page of their afternoon edition and another the next day.

When I returned to school the next day, one of my homeroom classmates, a girl named Jan, told me that she was really glad to see me. Everyone knew about the crash, and when I didn’t show up she was worried I’d been killed. Thankfully, there were no fatalities in that crash.

The Staten Island Advance has a page dedicated to crash coverage, including a listing of ferry accidents since 1871, when a boiler explosion killed 126 people. The most bizarre incident is surely the 1986 one where a deranged man pulled out a machete and went on a rampage, killing two people and wounding nine others. I see that the boat involved in this crash, the Andrew J. Barberi, had a similar but less deadly incident in 1995, in which the same operator was at the helm. That man, Richard Smith, fled the scene of this accident and tried to commit suicide shortly thereafter. We’ll see what he has to say about what happened. I’ll be checking back, that’s for sure.

What’s the big secret?

Among the things that went down while I was off eating cheese and swilling champagne was the revelation that the folks behind the anti-Metro referendum group don’t want you to know who they are.

Texans for True Mobility has declined since Monday to release statements about the money it has collected and spent in its campaign to defeat the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Nov. 4 expansion referendum.

State Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, a member of the group’s advisory board, said that in general, political contributions should be open for public review.

“It is always good when people disclose,” Janek said. “When you get into these political issues, I think disclosure is better than nondisclosure.”

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill, also a TTM adviser, said he would have no problem disclosing the names of contributors who don’t specifically ask to remain anonymous.

Texans for True Mobility, led by developer Michael Stevens, has blitzed voters with advertisements this week trashing Metro’s expansion plan, the centerpiece of which is a $640 million bond issue to add 22 miles of light rail by 2012.

How is it that they are getting away with this? By exploiting a loophole, of course.

Advocates for open political campaigns decried TTM’s decision to form two separate entities bearing the same name: a nonprofit corporation to “educate” voters about the flaws in Metro’s plan and a political action committee to “advocate” for the referendum’s defeat.

Donations to nonprofit corporations are not required to be disclosed under state election laws. Contributions to political action committees, on the other hand, must be disclosed.

TTM’s nonprofit arm funded the initial ad blitz, which is why the group said it did not file a campaign finance disclosure by Monday’s deadline. But those ads cross the line from education into advocating against the Metro plan, several observers said Thursday.

A four-page color mailer from TTM arriving in mailboxes this week, for example, has phrases such as, “Metro’s Rail Plan: Costs Too Much … Does Too Little,” “What’s Wrong With Metro’s Plan? Just About Everything,” and “We cannot afford to waste these precious public dollars.”

I cannot understand how this mailer could be considered anything but advocacy. I know there are certain magic words that turn an “informational” piece into one that calls for a specific vote, but anyone who could read TTM’s mailer and not conclude that TTM really really thinks you ought to vote against Metro’s proposal is someone who would flunk the fourth-grade TAKS test on reading comprehension. But this is the fig leaf that TTM is hiding behind.

TTM responds it has a First Amendment right to speak out on a plan proposed by a government agency so long as does not advocate “vote no Nov. 4” or “kill this plan.” Andy Taylor, the group’s attorney, said it is carefully following the Texas Election Code.

Though the code appears on its face to broadly require disclosure of any spending “in connection with an election on a measure,” Taylor said, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such a provision is unconstitutional unless interpreted to ban only spending advocating for passage or failure.

If the name Andy Taylor sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the guy who’s defending the Texas Association of Business against allegations currently being investigated by Travis County DA Ronnie Earle that they broke campaign finance laws last year in supporting Republican candidates for the state House. As in that case, Taylor is zealously protecting corporations from having to disclose the nature of their contributions, something that led to some TAB officials being cited for contempt after getting an unfavorable ruling from a state judge.

I suppose one can believe in the principle of a First Amendment right of corporations to make secret campaign contributions, but I personally think it’s nuts. As Bob Stein alludes to in this article, the only conclusion that I can reach is that these folks don’t want to let the masses know what they’re up to, presumably because we wouldn’t like it if we did know.

Of course, by the time the courts and our toothless Ethics Commission rule on this, we’ll all have forgotten about it. The Chronicle is trying to get a list of these contributors and has asked Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal to investigate, but he won’t reveal anything till after the election. In short, TTM can thumb its nose at all of us and has nothing to worry about. That’s democracy for you.

Rice makes it official

Rice has signed on the dotted line to join Conference USA, along with SMU and Tulsa, thus rejoining its former mates Houston and TCU.

Rice University president Malcolm Gillis signed an agreement Friday with Conference USA, paving the way for the Owls to begin play in the league beginning with the 2005-06 academic year.

In a statement released by the university Friday, Gillis said the agreement is “contingent upon certain other changes in the national athletic scene,” most likely the anticipated departure of current C-USA members Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and DePaul to the Big East.

“We’re still waiting for the last little piece to the puzzle, but the agreement is in place,” Rice athletic director Bobby May said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to be a part of Conference USA. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and it’s going to be challenging. We’re very excited.”

SMU president Gerald Turner and Tulsa president Robert Lawless issued similar statements, meaning both schools will follow Rice to a revamped 12-team league.

Rice, SMU and Tulsa will join Houston, Tulane and TCU in a Western Division of C-USA, which the schools hope will ease the demanding travel burdens they’ve found in the WAC and help foster regional rivalries.

“This configuration will allow for very substantial savings in travel costs,” Gillis said in the statement. “Even more important, the proximity of these schools will benefit our men’s and women’s athletic teams through large reductions in time away from class.

“We especially welcome the opportunity to renew old Southwest Conference rivalries with TCU and the University of Houston. We expect to have in the near future a formal announcement with Conference USA regarding its membership realignment.”

I guess that means the MOB will be able to dust off its Annual Salute To The New Conference for 2005. Maybe now we’ll finally get some stability.

As for the WAC, the future looks kinda grim to me.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson had been hoping to lure TCU, UH and Tulane away from C-USA but lost the tug of war between the two leagues.

“I’m obviously disappointed and wanted Rice, SMU and Tulsa to be part of a Central Time Zone division that would have provided them exactly what they expect to receive from Conference USA,” Benson said. “I knew that one of us was probably going to lose, and Conference USA probably had the advantage in that they had the existing claim to the region. We’ll certainly miss those schools, but I strongly believe the WAC will recover and go on and be successful in some configuration.”

Benson had tried to get Rice, Tulsa and SMU to sign an agreement binding them to the WAC, but the schools were concerned about the lack of commitment from the teams in the western portion of the league. The Mountain West Conference is eyeing some WAC teams for expansion, including Fresno State, Nevada, Boise State and Hawaii.

The WAC could perhaps add schools like Utah State and New Mexico State and retrench as a mostly Western conference, or it could give up the ghost and let the MWC pick off its ripest fruit. Either way, the school that gets most screwed is Louisiana Tech, who loses its three closest rivals and probably faces the choice of lousy travel, independent status, or rejoining the conference it had previously spurned, the Sun Belt. UTEP is also a loser, though less so if the WAC stays toegther and adds NMSU. We’ll see what happens, but I expect it to be as bumpy in the WAC between now and 2005 as it was the year that the eight MWC schools dropped their surprise departure on us.