By Brian Deakyne
HIGHLANDS – As many SeaStreak commuters do every day, John Esser stood up and walked toward the exit as the ferry approached downtown Manhattan Wednesday morning.
But for Esser and many of his fellow commuters on the 8 a.m. ferry departing from Highlands, horror struck as the SeaStreak vessel crashed into the dock at Pier 11 at 8:45 a.m.
“I went flying, just like everyone else,” said Esser, a Fair Haven resident who travels nearly every workday to New York City. “There was nothing unusual before then. The pilot went too fast – at least that’s what it felt like to me. Clearly, he didn’t slow down.”
Esser was one of the many commuters injured in the crash, although he said he believes there are more than the reported 57 injured as of press time on Wednesday. As a result of the crash, SeaStreak canceled its departures from East 35th Street at 5:55 p.m. and Pier 11 at 6:10 p.m., according to the ferry’s website.
“I think there are more injured people than what they’re saying. There are many people, like myself, that had meetings to go to and couldn’t get checked out,” said Esser, who hurt his knee and shoulder in the crash.
Another commuter, however, didn’t believe the SeaStreak pilot should be faulted. Robert Gunn of Atlantic Highlands, also on the 8 a.m. ferry said, “It didn’t seem like that, there wasn’t anything unusual” as the vessel approached the dock. “I was in the middle of the upper deck and had just left my seat to walk toward the stairs as it hit.”
SeaStreak didn’t make any specific announcement requesting that passengers on the morning ferry remain in their seats, Esser said. But they did so on the return trip, he said, referring to the ferry from Manhattan that arrived at 2:40 p.m. in Highlands.
“I’ll still take the ferry, but they need to make announcements,” he said.
Esser, who said he was roughly 10 people away from the point of contact, had one thing on his mind as the ferry hit into the dock: “Hold on tight,” he said, forcing a smile after a long day – a much longer one than he expected.
“It’s one of those unfortunate things that happen,” he said. “But we have to find out what happened, and they need to go ahead and correct what went wrong.”
Gunn, who said he’d be “happy to ride the ferry every time I go into the city,” does not travel regularly to Manhattan. “I don’t take it every day because I don’t commute into the city like I used to, but I have no problem taking it again.
“It’s a little pricey,” he added, “but there’s really no better way to go in. I’ve been taking it for 18 or 19 years, and there has never been a bad experience until today. Things like this happen.”
Gunn said he received a CT scan and was examined and cleared by doctors in New York. “The doctors seemed to think I was fine,” he said.
Jacqueline Wegner, who was dockside in Manhattan preparing to return to Highlands on the 8:45 a.m. ferry after visiting her daughter in New York, witnessed the crash.
“There was a man with his bone popping through his skin. He was calm, but it was worse to look at it, I guess,” she said.
Wegner didn’t arrive back to Highlands until 12:20 p.m.
“I was hoping to get on the first ferry home,” she said. “I was right there under the tape. I took 79 pictures that I have to upload now.”
Despite the incident, Wegner said there was no anxious feeling about SeaStreak in her midday ride.
“It’s the middle of the day, so it’s usually pretty empty,” she said. “Getting on the ferry isn’t eventful, so a lot of people were standing around and waiting when it happened. Everyone that helped out did a great job.”