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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.

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