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Gary Younge
'They had no control of the boat'

"It's not a mad crush," says Matthew Solomon, a Staten Island resident who takes the ferry occasionally. "People are courteous. But they're also anxious to get home as soon as they can."

Yesterday's 3 o'clock ferry from Lower Manhattan was no different. But as commuters folded their papers, buttoned their coats and made their way to the front they noticed something different.

While the boat should have been slowing down, this time it continued at a fair pace. With strong winds gusting at more than 40 miles an hour, it was rocking more than usual.

Those travelling in the ferry behind said it approached erratically and had trouble docking. "The ferry was coming too fast," said William Gonzalez, a witness who lives in a nearby apartment complex. "They had no control to stop the boat."

Andre Lelong, 42, said he had gone to Staten Island to sightsee and was standing on the pier when he saw the ferry come in.

"It was approaching at a 45-degree angle, and did not seem to be slowing down." Mr Lelong said. "It was like a movie. It hit the dock and took the entire right-hand forward side of the boat off."

By all accounts what followed was pandemonium with the sound of splintering wood and twisting metal. Some heard a bang and were knocked to the ground as the ferry hit the pier at the St George ferry terminal.

Others were hit by debris as the pier ripped the right side of the boat open.

Amid the screams and deafening sound of metal pounding into wood, some jumped overboard believing the choppy waters to be the safest place while others had their limbs ripped from their bodies.

Passenger Bob Carroll said: "It was like the Titanic, when an iceberg ripped the whole side of the boat out."

Firefighters made their way through the smoking, damaged section of the ship, the Andrew J Barberi, looking for the injured. Coastguard divers plucked at least two victims from the water.

A spokesman for St Vincent's hospital on Staten Island said they had taken 10 patients, some of them with "massive trauma" and others with hypothermia because they had fallen or jumped into the water.

The three-level boat was carrying 25% of its capacity of 6,000 passengers.

The Staten Island ferry carries 70,000 passengers a day between St George, Staten Island and Whitehall street in Manhattan.

The ferry, a free service, is something of a leveller. As the quickest route between Staten Island and the tip of Manhattan it carries everyone from construction workers to Wall Street brokers as well as tourists looking for a good shot of the Statue of Liberty without having to pay for the pleasure.

Yesterday much of the city was settling down to watch the home baseball team, the New York Yankees, in the semi-finals of the world series.

It was at the Yankees' stadium that New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, heard the news and rushed back to town to reassure and promise a full investigation.

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