Ferry transportation has been an integral part of America's transportation network for centuries, evolving from humble river crossings to sophisticated extensions of the highway system by water. According to the 2020 National Census of Ferry Operators (NCFO), there are 164 ferry operators in the United States, with California and Washington leading in the number of operators. These ferries serve a multitude of purposes, from commuter transit, which accounts for 79% of trips, to transportation for pleasure and recreation. They also play crucial roles in providing roadway connections, emergency services, lifeline services to islands, and access to and around National Parks.
Ferry accidents, though relatively rare in the United States, can have devastating consequences. In 2003, 11 people lost their lives when a Staten Island ferry crashed into a pier at full speed. In 2013, more than 80 people were injured when a commuter ferry collided with a dock at Port Imperial in New York. In 2022, a ferry collision at the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal in West Seattle caused about $10.3 million in property damage.
Incidents like these have brought the safety of ferry transportation into question—and for good reason.
Every passenger deserves a safe journey. Every crew member deserves to work on a vessel that’s properly maintained, for a company that puts safety first. Considering that the average age of U.S. ferries was 33 in 2020, every effort must be made to ensure these vessels are maintained and operated safely.
Let’s take a closer look at America’s worst ferry accidents and what passengers, crew members, and fellow boaters need to know if they’ve been involved in an accident of any kind.
The Worst Ferry Accidents in the United States
1. George Prince Ferry (1976)
On October 20, 1976, tragedy struck on the Mississippi River in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. The George Prince ferry, which had been in operation for 50 years at the time, was carrying 94 passengers and 2 crew members from Destrehan to Luling on a chilly, clear morning. As the captain navigated the ferry across the river, it collided head-on with the Frosta, a massive Norwegian tanker—despite attempts by the tanker's pilot to signal the ferry. The George Prince flipped over, dumping her passengers and their cars into the cold water.
In the documentary, The Luling Ferry Disaster, one of the few survivors shares his story. He recalls sitting in his truck at the time of the incident, unaware of what was about to occur. Suddenly, he heard someone shout, “It’s gonna hit!”
The 700-foot tanker collided with the George Prince, and the man was thrown into his windshield. As the Frosta plowed through the hull of the ferry, he and his truck plummeted into the Mississippi.
The windshield on the truck blew out at about 65 feet underwater, and the force of the pressure shot the man “like a cannon” out of the truck and to the surface. He swam as fast as he could to the middle of the river, trying to avoid getting sucked into the ship's propellers. He was rescued, but others weren’t so fortunate.
78 people lost their lives, marking the incident as the worst ferry disaster in U.S. history.
This event not only left a permanent imprint on the community but also led to significant changes in maritime law. Larger vessels in the river now have the legal right of way over smaller ships, and stringent drug and alcohol testing policies for pilots and crews were implemented to enhance safety on the water.
2. Staten Island Ferry (2003)
The Staten Island Ferry, Andrew J. Barberi, met with a horrific accident on October 15, 2003. As the ferry approached the St. George Terminal at full speed, it crashed into the maintenance pier. The collision resulted in the tragic loss of 11 lives and left 71 others injured, some critically.
Investigations revealed that the pilot had lost consciousness due to fatigue and the side effects of medication. This incident not only brought to light the issue of pilot health and readiness but also led to significant changes in operational procedures and safety protocols for ferry operations, including mandatory pilot physicals and the requirement of a minimum of two pilots in the wheelhouse at all times during a ferry's approach and departure.
3. Port Imperial Ferry (2013)
On the morning of January 9, 2013, the daily routine of commuters on the high-speed ferry to Lower Manhattan turned into a scene of chaos as the vessel collided with Pier 11, injuring at least 85 people.
The crash, which occurred around 8:45 a.m., caused passengers to be violently thrown from their seats, resulting in a mix of confusion, pain, and injuries. The ferry, carrying 326 passengers and 5 crew members, was concluding its route from New Jersey when it struck the pier at an estimated speed of 14 knots (16 mph), according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
This incident marked not the first accident for the ferry, operated by Seastreak LLC, which had previous collisions in 2009 and 2010. The National Transportation Safety Board initiated an investigation to determine the cause, while Seastreak LLC pledged cooperation and extended its sympathies to the injured.
4. Staten Island Ferry (2010)
The Andrew J. Barberi was involved in another serious collision in 2010. This time, the vessel, which had been in operation at that point for 29 years, slammed into the S. George Ferry Terminal as a result of a faulty valve.
The faulty valve prevented the Barberi’s propellers from stopping, meaning the pilot was unable to slow the boat as it approached the slip. 50 people were injured.
5. Washington State Ferry (2022)
On July 28, 2022, the Calthamet ferry collided with a dock in Seattle, resulting in one minor injury and causing over $10 million in damages to the ferry and an additional $300,000 to an offshore pylon.
Investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Washington State Ferries (WSF) revealed that the incident was caused by the ferry captain's brief lapse into "microsleep." This temporary incapacitation meant that the captain and the quartermaster failed to properly monitor the vessel's approach to the ferry terminal, resulting in the accident.
The NTSB highlighted the need for constant vigilance in repetitive ferry operations to prevent complacency and emphasized that existing measures to counteract operator fatigue were overlooked.
Other Recent U.S. Ferry Accidents
Fisher Island Ferry (2023)
In June 2023, one man lost his life and another was seriously injured when their 32-foot boat collided with the Fisher Island Ferry near Dodge Island, Miami. Crew members on the ferry were able to pull one of the men, a 29-year-old from Hialeah, out of the water immediately after the collision, and he was hospitalized. The body of the other man, a 27-year-old from Culter Bay, was recovered by Miami Fire Rescue divers. The cause of the tragic incident is still under investigation.
NYC Ferry (2021)
In May 2021, an NYC Ferry collided with a construction barge near Brooklyn's Pier 6, an incident passengers caught on video as windows shattered. A strong tide caused the ferry to move erratically, pushing it into the nearby barge. Thankfully, there were no injuries, and the ferry suffered minor damage—although it was temporarily taken out of service to be inspected.
What You Should Know as a Ferry Passenger, Crew Member, or Boater
The companies that own and operate U.S. ferries bear the primary responsibility for preventing ferry accidents by ensuring their vessels are seaworthy and that they adhere strictly to safety standards. This overarching duty encompasses rigorous maintenance, training, and observance of all pertinent regulations designed to safeguard everyone on or near the water.
What does this mean for ferry passengers, crew members, and other boaters?
In the aftermath of a serious ferry accident, passengers and their families have specific rights and legal options. First, they may seek compensation for injuries, trauma, or losses incurred due to the accident. This compensation can cover medical expenses, psychological counseling, lost wages, and, in tragic cases, wrongful death claims. Ferry companies are obligated to offer a safe passage. Legal recourse typically involves proving that negligence or failure to follow safety protocols contributed to the accident.
Ferry crew members are protected under maritime law, notably the Jones Act, which allows them to pursue claims against their employers for injuries sustained while on the job—when these injuries are caused by negligence. This includes accidents resulting from inadequate training, poor vessel maintenance, or other unsafe working conditions. Crew members have the right to seek damages for medical costs, lost earnings, and pain and suffering. Crew safety is a legal responsibility of ferry operators, and there are established legal pathways to address grievances and seek redress.
Boaters sharing waterways with ferries must navigate with caution, respecting right-of-way rules and maintaining a safe distance. In the event of a collision or accident caused by a ferry's negligence—such as failing to signal or adhere to navigation rules—boaters have the right to seek damages for repairs, injury, or other losses. Legal claims may require demonstrating that the ferry or its operator breached navigational rules or was otherwise at fault.
As with other maritime disasters, there is never an excuse for a ferry collision, grounding, or foundering. As U.S. ferries continue to age, their owners and operators must put safety first. No matter what.