HYANNIS — Two experienced operators were in charge of the Cape Cod ferry that slammed into a jetty Friday night in rough seas and injured 15 people, officials said Saturday.
The cause of the accident, which occurred around 9:30 p.m. near the end of a Nantucket-to-Hyannis trip, is under investigation by the Coast Guard. The ferry’s operator, the Steamship Authority, said Friday night’s high winds and choppy seas may have played a role in the crash, though other vessels operated without problems.
Steamship Authority General Manager Wayne Lamson estimated the ferry was traveling at 32 knots, or about 38 miles per hour, when it hit the jetty.
He said that is the maximum speed for that part of the harbor, but it’s “not unusual” for boats to travel that fast in the area.
“You would have thought there would have been more damage than that, given the speed,” Lamson said in a telephone interview.
Maritime maps show that the ferry, called the Iyanough, typically curls northeast on its way to the harbor and steers clear of the long jetty that juts into Hyannis Harbor.
Lamson said the ferry was not necessarily taken off course. Ferry operators, he said, have “some discretion” to chart a course. “But it was definitely in the wrong place” by the time it hit the jetty, he said.
Public safety and Steamship Authority officials said they would not comment on the cause of the accident until the investigation was over.
“Coast Guard investigators were on board the vessel early this morning. They interviewed the crew. They’re photographing the condition of the vessel, interviewing passengers if necessary,” Lieutenant Matt Baker said during a Saturday afternoon news conference at the ferry terminal. “So it’s a thorough investigation, the goal of which is to learn anything we can, make sure future incidents are avoided.”
Baker had no estimate for how long the investigation might take.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates transportation accidents, said it was aware of the accident and working with the Coast Guard.
Ferry passenger Sarah Villafranco, an emergency room doctor who lives in Carbondale, Colo., was sleeping when the impact of the crash woke her.
It was a “very, very sudden, very severe stop,” she said, and the ferry broke out in “a little bit of just low-level pandemonium.”
When a crew member started calling for a doctor, Villafranco rushed to help a man who had fallen from the upper deck and was unconscious.
All around her, she said, passengers had scrapes and other minor injuries.
“Anyone who had been in any sort of standing position was thrown to the ground by the impact,” she said. “A couple of goose eggs on people’s heads, and a lot of us had whiplash-type soreness in our necks.”
Later that evening, when Villafranco got off the ferry, she went by Cape Cod Hospital to check on the man she had helped onboard and visited with his family. “He was doing great,” she said.
“I think it’s really very fortunate that no one was super seriously injured,” she said. “You just don’t expect when you get on a ferry that this is a possibility.”
The injured passengers were transported to Cape Cod Hospital. They were all released by noon on Saturday, according to a spokeswoman.
Most of the injuries were trauma-related and may include broken bones, Fire Captain Bill Rex said in an interview Saturday morning. At least four people suffered head injuries and some people were thrown down stairs, he said. One patient suffered an asthma attack.
Passengers with more serious injuries were removed by helicopter after the accident, while others were removed by boat. The Coast Guard published video showing part of the air evacuation Saturday afternoon.
All passengers were transported to shore by 3:40 a.m. Saturday. In total, 57 passengers, crew members, and food service staff were removed from the ferry after the accident. Two members of the crew remained with the ship after the rescue evacuation ended.
The six-person crew included two licensed operators in charge of the ship — an experienced captain and a pilot — who have a combined 60 years of experience with the authority, Lamson said. They were not named Saturday.
The crew was tested for drugs and alcohol after the accident. There was no sign of alcohol, but the drug tests will take more time to process. Lamson said he was not aware of any concerns about the safety of the ferry or its crew prior to the accident, or any prior safety incidents involving the pilot or captain.
The Steamship Authority has given the crew the option of transferring to another vessel or taking time off following the accident. Most plan to take leave, Lamson said.
By Saturday morning, the boat had been removed from the jetty and was on its way to Fairhaven on Saturday afternoon for repairs, which will take at least two weeks.
The authority has chartered a vehicle to operate the high-speed service in the meantime, but the route will run on a limited schedule this weekend.
Lamson said the Steamship Authority is planning to refund passengers on the Friday ferry.
Early Saturday morning, fishermen and families strolled the beach amid news cameras and reporters, all eyes trained on the far-off pile of displaced rocks about a third of the way into the jetty.
“It’s inexplicable,” said Larry Brown, a 30-year-resident of Hyannis and lifelong sailor. “The depth finder should have been telling him it was wrong. The radar should have been telling him it was wrong.”
Brown said he couldn’t imagine how the ferry had veered off the clearly marked channel and hit the breakaway at what he called its “midpoint.”
“It just doesn’t add up,” Brown said. “If you had no instrumentation but a depth finder, you could find your way into the harbor.”
Anne Louise Strachan said her son often takes the ferry to Nantucket. She said she didn’t think the accident would affect ferry operations beyond the weekend.
“I’m not concerned about taking it ever again,” Strachan said. “They’ve been a business a long time and nothing like this has ever happened.”
Hyannis Fire Chief Dean Melanson said that he has never heard of a Steamship Authority ferry striking the jetty.
“I’ve been here 33 years,” he said. “I do not recall anything like this.”
The Barnstable Historical Society said it was not familiar with any prior Steamship Authority accidents in Hyannis Harbor.
Last year, one Steamship Authority ferry hit another at the dock of its Woods Hole terminal in Falmouth. No injuries were reported. Lamson also said a Steamship Authority vehicle once collided with a fishing vessel “30 or 40 years ago.”Evan Allen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro. Sara Salinas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @saracsalinas. Felicia Gans can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.