By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK, Jan 9 (Reuters) - A high-speed commuter ferry carrying hundreds of passengers crashed into a pier near Wall Street during the morning rush hour on Wednesday, injuring 57 people, one critically, authorities said.
Passengers who had boarded the 141-foot Seastreak Wall Street in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, and were queued up to disembark in New York, were thrown to its deck by the impact of the hard landing at 8:43 a.m. (1343 GMT).
"People who were standing up flew because of the impact," said passenger Brett Cebulash, 50, an attorney who regularly rides the ferry that caters to white-collar employees with a monthly commuting cost of $655.
"It was a normal morning, we were rolling into the dock and then they hit something. There was a sudden impact," he said.
The ferry, on its morning run from the high-end community on the Jersey Shore that is still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, suffered a gash in its right front side. Firefighters and rescue workers rushed to the scene, as did Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The boat was traveling on calm waters at between 10 to 12 knots, or about 11.5 to 14 miles per hour when it crashed into the pier, New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said. That is roughly equivalent to the force of catching a 200-pound bag of cement dropped from a first-floor window, experts said.
The gruesome scene of passengers lying on stretchers at the pier recalled earlier landing crashes involving the Staten Island ferry, including one in October 2003, which killed 11 people and injured dozens more, and one in May 2010 that injured around 40 people.
The ferry pilot in the 2003 crash and his supervisor were sentenced to more than a year in prison each for their roles in the accident. The pilot, Richard Smith, had passed out at the helm. He had taken painkillers the night before for a bad back.
The crew of the Seastreak passed breathalyzer tests administered after Wednesday's accident, police officials said.
Some of the injured were taken to the hospital, while others were treated at the scene, a spokesperson for the Fire Department of New York said.
Of the 57 people injured, two were initially reported in critical condition with head injuries, although one was later upgraded by hospital officials, nine were serious and 17 were in guarded condition.
Among the injured were two members of Barclay's Bank PLC , the company said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said an 11-member team was heading to New York to begin an investigation into the cause of the crash.
Seastreak Wall Street has had at least two previous docking accidents in 2009 and 2010, including one tied to mechanical failure, according to a Coast Guard website.
About 327 people were aboard the boat on Wednesday, said Tom Wynne, spokesman for Seastreak, which boasts on its website that its "fast passenger catamarans provide the fastest commute to New York City!"
The accident occurred as commuters lined up to quickly disembark the craft and start their workday.
"The ferry came into the dock hard," Wynne said. "When the vessel hit the dock, the passengers obviously fell."
He declined to name the ferry captain but said, "All of our captains have a great deal of experience."
The ferry that crashed on Wednesday is run by Seastreak, a company owned by the Barker and Tregurtha families, who also own the Interlake Steamship Company, Mormac Marine Group, Inc, and Moran Towing Co, the largest tug and barge operator on the East and Gulf Coasts, according to the company's website.