SUV with three inside plunges from Chappy ferry; all safe, but mishap's cause a mystery
A routine late-night crossing for the captain of the Chappaquiddick ferry and three passengers traveling in a 2006 Mercedes SUV turned into a harrowing experience when the vehicle rolled off the end of the ferry and fell into the cold, dark waters of Edgartown Harbor.
Tuesday night, police, fire and emergency rescue personnel, their sirens shattering the town's off-season quiet, converged on Edgartown Harbor just after 11 pm in response to a report of a car and people in the water.
When Edgartown police officers arrived at the ferry, the three former occupants of the Mercedes were out of the water, according to a police press release provided yesterday morning. The operator, Susan McLean, 54, and her daughter, Audrey McLean, 19, of Ambler, Pennsylvania were treated at the scene. The third occupant of the car, Alexander Tasch, 23, of Nantucket was transported to Martha's Vineyard Hospital for minor injuries and later released, police said.
The Chappaquiddick ferry makes the short crossing of Edgartown Harbor on a daily basis, carrying automobiles, trucks and passengers between Edgartown and the small island.
The standard procedure is that vehicles drive on one end and drive off the other. The ferry captain or an assistant places wooden chocks under the wheels of vehicles on the ferry deck, and a heavy chain is hung across each end. Vehicle drivers are instructed to shut off their engines and shift the vehicle into park.
The ferry was operating on winter hours, when the last scheduled trip from Edgartown to Chappaquiddick is at 11 pm.
According to the police press release, "The operator, Susan McLean, stated that she drove onto the ferry. The ferry operator placed a wood chock in front of the wheel. Susan stated, she placed the vehicle in neutral.
"As the ferry approached Chappaquiddick, Susan moved the steering wheel back and forth. The passengers stated Susan was pretending to steer the ferry with her steering wheel.
"During that time, she knocked the chock out from the wheel. As the ferry slowed down while approaching the slip the vehicle traveled forward and entered the water. The vehicle has since been removed from the water, and the case is under investigation."
Police said they expect to file charges against the driver once the investigation is concluded.
Police said that Steve Ewing, a dock builder, used his boat to pull the submerged vehicle out of the slip and over toward the shore. A tow truck was then able to winch the Mercedes up onto the beach.
Yesterday morning, the Coast Guard arrived to begin an investigation into the accident.
Peter Wells, a long-time Chappaquiddick resident and ferry captain, purchased the ferry from long-time owner Roy Hayes in January. Reached by phone, Mr. Wells said he had been advised by the Coast Guard and his lawyer not to speak about the accident while it is under investigation. Mr. Wells said that all he could say is that he is very happy everyone is all right.
The captain Tuesday night was Brad Fligor of Edgartown. Reached by The Times, Mr. Fligor, who has more than 20 years of experience working on the ferry, also said he could not comment on the accident.
Many people familiar with the ferry operation expressed surprise that a vehicle could roll off the ferry. Robert Fynbo, a long-time Chappy resident and Edgartown firefighter, said that in all his years living on Chappy he had seen the chain system stop full-size pickups that were rolling forward either in neutral or while idling in drive. He said it was hard to understand how a vehicle could roll off, unless it was under power.
The McLeans are frequent seasonal Island visitors and have family connections to Edgartown. Mr. Tasch has a family home on Chappaquiddick.
On Tuesday night, Ms. McLean planned to take her passengers to Mr. Tasch's house on Chappy and return to Edgartown on the ferry's last crossing of the night.
Instead, the group ended up staying in the Kelley House. Reached in their hotel room yesterday, they said they were grateful for all of the help and described a frightening experience.
"All of a sudden the car like slid off," said Audrey McLean, "it somehow bumped off or something and the car went under the water, and we were all in it. The windows were up so we tried to get out and all the water was coming into the car."
She said her boyfriend, Mr. Tasch, managed to get a window open. "Me and my mom were still trying to get out, and he helped us."
Mr. Tasch said his father, Woody Tasch, formerly lived on Chappy. He has since moved but kept the family's house.
He said the ferry was approaching the dock when the front end of the car went off the edge of the ferry. "I thought that that was going to be the extent of it because it kind of sat there with us hanging," he said. " It was kind of surreal at first, and I realized what was happening when water started coming in at my feet."
He said the door would not open. He worried that the electrical system would short out and he would be unable to open the window. "My window actually went down. So I put my foot up on the door part and climbed up onto the roof of the car because it was the only part of the car that was still above the water."
He helped the two women get out of the car through his window, he said. Brad Fligor then helped the three get on the ferry.
Mr. Tasch estimated the ferry was within five feet of the ramp when the car went off. He said he was surprised the water was deep enough to submerge the car. "I remember after I got out seeing the car system die, watching the lights flicker a couple of time. It was crazy. It was lucky it didn't short out when I was trying to open the window."
Mr. Tasch said the captain was very happy to see that everyone was okay. "I felt bad that he had to be a part of it," he said.
Preparing to leave the Vineyard yesterday, Susan McLean said the weather was windy and the water rough Tuesday evening. She said she told the captain she planned to drop off her passengers and return immediately.
Ms. McLean said she was a little unnerved by the fact that she was asked to pull up to the front of the ferry. Contrary to the police account, she said she grabbed the car steering wheel to steady herself. "Just for a second, but maybe if there was a block, it was just enough to dislodge it," she said. As the ferry approached the dock it swerved, she said, and the car "just kind of slid off."
Ms. McLean said she does not blame the ferry operator, but she added that any notion that she tried to drive off is incorrect. She said she has been on the ferry before and knows the routine.
She said the car was in neutral, and she simply forgot to put it in park. She said the captain did not instruct her to do otherwise. She said she did not turn off her engine.
She said she is grateful everyone is safe. "We were fine, we lost the car, but we got most of our belongings back," she said.
Ms. McLean said she was impressed with the professionalism of all the emergency responders. "Everyone couldn't have been nicer and more helpful," she said.