Staten Island Ferry Crash

This story appears in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of 911 Magazine

There is an axiom widely held by physicists that says, "Anything that can happen, will happen." In the FDNY, we have our own version of this saying, "Anything that can happen, will happen in New York City."

We have two airports, a new monorail connecting JFK airport to the Long Island Railroad hub in Queens, 2 underground petroleum pipelines, subways, elevated railroads, and thousands of trucks carrying freight over thousands of miles of roadway. We have a Federal Reserve Bank, the United Nations, national parks, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In addition, five hundred thirty two miles of waterways with numerous ships, tugboats, freighters, and ferries all help to keep the city vital.

In order to mitigate emergencies, the Department has devised plans to handle some of the common unusual situations. We have preplans to handle emergencies at the airports, leaks or fires in major pipelines, hazardous material incidents, and subway or railroad incidents. Since September 11, 2001, bio-terrorist acts are part of the litany of pre-planned responses.

October 15, 2003. A strong cold front made its way into the city during the overnight hours. Winds at twelve MPH gusting to fifty-five MPH made for an unusually busy Sunday as trees and power lines fell prey to the wind's ferocity. As people woke up to find their cars under fallen trees, a training exercise began on Staten Island.

Coined "Operation Biopod", it involved over seven hundred FDNY members to see how fast mass inoculations could be given. (In actuality, all of the "victims" received flu shots.) The plan was to have every fire company and EMS unit on Staten Island pass though a single Point Of Distribution (POD), then, evaluate the speed and effectiveness of the personnel and program. The results of the evaluation would be used to fine tune future exercises.

In order to provide ample fire protection, the department mandates that if two adjoining companies who run first and second due together on more than seven boxes will be out of service longer than thirty minutes, one of those companies must be covered. Staten Island's normal compliment of companies is seventeen engines and twelve trucks. Since several fire units were to be part of the first wave of companies passing though the POD, units from Brooklyn were relocated early to cover the soon-to-be vacant firehouses.

The Staten Island dispatchers spent most of the day constantly rotating companies through the POD, and shifting relocators around the borough all the while having to deal with fallen tree limbs and downed power lines. At 1500 hours, the Andrew J. Barberi, a 310-foot passenger ferry left the Manhattan terminal for a 25-minute cruise across New York Harbor.

The Staten Island Ferry is the one of the cheapest tourist attractions in town, the fare being free, and as many tourists use the boats as do workday commuters. A typical ride takes you past the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and many riders find the trip a relaxing respite from the hustle and bustle of commuting in the city.

At 1522 hours, a call to the Staten Island central office reported that a ferry had hit the pier. With numerous ferry crossings a year, it is not atypical for the occasional ferry to bump the pier as they approach the berth. Moments later, another call received from an off-duty fire officer on board said that this was a serious event.

As the boat approached the St. George terminal on Staten Island, it veered off course and sideswiped a concrete maintenance pier. The pier sliced open the side of the boat in the passenger seating area injuring and maiming dozens of people, killing ten. Some jumped into the water, taking their chances in a rough sea rather than face an uncertain fate at the hands of an immovable object.

For the first few minutes, there was concern about whether the boat was struck below the water line thus a threat to sink. Fortunately, that catastrophic event did not occur, but fire fighters had enough on their hands regardless. So chaotic was the scene that the ferry pilot somehow managed to leave the scene and go home. Along with marine companies 6 and 9, NYPD and FDNY divers checked the water for passengers while fire fighters and police officers on the boat had to dig through wreckage to search for victims.

Severe enough was the damage to the boat that the incident commander ordered the response of Rescue 3 with the collapse unit. (The collapse unit essentially is a lumberyard on wheels. They carry the tools and supplies necessary to shore up structures.) EMS sent their mobile emergency room vehicle, and a temporary morgue was set up nearby.

As the search for victims became more labor intensive, the IC transmitted two additional alarms to relieve exhausted personnel. Each engine and truck Staten Island sent to the incident had to be replaced with relocators from Brooklyn since it was unclear how far this incident would escalate. While Staten Island kept their firehouses filled, Brooklyn kept firehouses closest to the bridge filled by taking units from the northern and central part of the borough. When northern Brooklyn started to thin out, Queens and Manhattan companies were used to fill in the gaps.

Every dispatcher knows the stresses involved in our chosen profession under normal conditions (if there is such a thing as normal.) Lives depend on us taking the correct action 100% of the time. For us, that includes constantly maintaining adequate levels of apparatus in service throughout the borough. Between the high winds, Operation Biopod, the 3rd alarm at the ferry terminal and the everyday activity, that duty alone kept us on our toes all day.

Relocating fire companies is not an exact science. The decision of which units to relocate will undoubtedly affect your fire protection in the near future. For example, you have to cover point A with units from point B. Soon enough, something will happen at point B, necessitating the movement of units from point C to point B. You are always robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Using the 48 states as an example, with each state representing an apparatus, let us propose that the New York and New Jersey apparatus are busy. In order to protect that area you need to take an apparatus from another state that does not connect with NY or NJ. If we take the apparatus from Maryland and move it to New York, the area is covered.

What will invariably happen next is that the apparatus from Pennsylvania will become unavailable and you now have an opening between New York and Pennsylvania, AND, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Now you take the apparatus from Kentucky and move it to Pennsylvania and you are okay again. (At least until the unit from West Virginia becomes unavailable.)

If this trend were to continue, you eventually would reach a point where you can no longer move an apparatus without leaving another area open. Fortunately, that has happened to us only twice in recent history, Friday, February 26, 1993, and Tuesday, September 11, 2001; both World Trade Center attacks.