A Commute to Remember

Every weekday morning, the Andrew Barberi, one of the largest in the fleet of Staten Island ferryboats, plows across New York Harbor on its six-mile voyage to the Battery, carrying as many as 6,012 commuters. Barring the occasional storm or a blanket of fog, the trip is comfortingly routine even for those who fear waterborne disaster.

Unless they count the seats in the lifeboats, that is.

The combined capacity of the Barberi’s lifeboats and rafts would accommodate just 7.6 percent of the ship’s total passengers. Which means that if it suffered serious damage and sank while fully loaded, 5,556 people would have to swim for it. Even the doomed Titanic, whose owners sacrificed safety for aesthetics, carried lifeboats for half its passengers.

Told of the ferry’s lifeboat provisions during a recent morning crossing, Sherry Sardo of Rossville, Staten Island, cringes. “That’s a scary thought,” she says. “I’m pregnant. I’m thinking about that woman in the movie floating in the water with her baby. Would that be me?”

Icebergs like the one that felled the great ship are, of course, not common in New York Harbor – but 1,000-foot cargo ships are: The harbor is one of the busiest in the country. In 1961, one of the ferryboats hit an oil tanker and sank. (No one was killed.) In 1981, the American Legion ferry smacked into a Norwegian cargo ship in a thick fog, landing some passengers in the hospital.

After that accident, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the ferries install better navigational equipment. New York City eventually complied. With certain exceptions, explains Bill Woody, an NTSB investigator, “we recommend that there be life rafts to support 100 percent of the people onboard.” In 1996, the Coast Guard moved to codify the NTSB’s recommendations but met stiff resistance from ferry operators all over the country who felt that adding lifesaving equipment would be too costly. So the Coast Guard eased off.

Staten Island Ferry director John Giaccio expresses complete confidence in the current safety measures. “There are millions of precautions,” Giaccio says, ticking off a few key items on the emergency protocol: Call in the Coast Guard, summon tugs to tow a distressed ferry to shore, and link the damaged vessel to a sister ferry for evacuation. The Coast Guard constantly inspects the fleet, and Giaccio meets with them weekly to brainstorm ferry improvements. The bigger ships are also equipped with state-of-the-art radar equipment. But no additional lifeboats are planned. “I really don’t feel there’s a need,” he says, adding that in an emergency, a rescue would take minutes.

Coast Guard lieutenant commander Brian Krenzien of Search and Rescue at Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth floats a far different scenario. He starts with a standard training drill: collision with an oil tanker three miles out. Even if all the available tugboats and all the Coast Guard, Police Department, and Fire Department vessels pitched in – and all the private boats in the vicinity helped out, too – rescuing all the commuters on a ferry like the Barberi would take anywhere from 8 to 22 hours. That’s not just a bad commute; that could be a death sentence: In cold winter water, life expectancy is about two hours. “Do I believe we would successfully remove all 4,500 people?” Krenzien asks. “I doubt it.”

Engineer Allen Chin, who managed the design and construction of the Barberi twenty years ago, agrees that the lifesaving capacity of the ferries could be improved. “Remember in Titanic when the designer said he wanted to put more lifeboats onboard,” says Chin, “but the owner said no? Everyone wants a safer ferryboat.”

Richard Willis, a writer from Manhattan, shivers aboard the Barberi as it sails into the Whitehall Street slip. “If a ferry sank,” he says, “I think the same thing would happen as on the Titanic: People would panic. Everyone would be out to save themselves, and corporate executives and women in fur coats would get on the lifeboats first.”

A Commute to Remember