Tall fish tale: Tourists fooled by oc­to­pus ferry dis­as­ter

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - NATION+WORLD - By Ula Ilnytzky

Ever hear about the gar­gan­tuan oc­to­pus that dragged a New York City ferry and its 400 pas­sen­gers to the river bot­tom nearly 53 years ago?

A cast bronze mon­u­ment ded­i­cated to the vic­tims of the steam ferry Cor­nelius G. Kolff re­cently ap­peared in Bat­tery Park at the south­ern tip of Man­hat­tan, erected a stone’s throw from a hand­ful of other somber memo­ri­als to sol­diers, sailors and mariners lost at sea or on the bat­tle­field. But if you can’t re­call the dis­as­ter, it could be be­cause the artist be­hind the me­mo­rial, Joseph Reginella, made the whole thing up. The 250-pound mon­u­ment, which de­picts a Staten Is­land ferry be­ing dragged down by gi­ant oc­to­pus ten­ta­cles, is part of a multi-lay­ered hoax that also in­cludes a so­phis­ti­cated web­site, a doc­u­men­tary, fab­ri­cated news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and glossy fliers di­rect­ing tourists to a phan­tom Staten Is­land Ferry Dis­as­ter Me­mo­rial Mu­seum across the har­bor.

It took Reginella six months to put it to­gether.

He said the idea for the project came to him while he was tak­ing his 11-yearold nephew from Florida on the ferry be­tween Man­hat­tan and Staten Is­land.

“He was ask­ing me all kinds of crazy ques­tions like if the wa­ters were shark-in­fested,” he said. “I said ‘No, but you know what did hap­pen in the ’60s? One of th­ese boats got pulled down by a gi­ant oc­to­pus.”

“The story just rolled off the top of my head” and the idea for a mock me­mo­rial was born.

It evolved to be­come “a mul­ti­me­dia art project and so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence — not ma­li­ciously — about how gullible peo­ple are,” said Reginella, who cre­ates art­works for store win­dows and amuse­ment parks.

The mon­u­ment never stays in one spot for more than two days “be­cause the city will come and take it away,” he said, adding that it takes two peo­ple to break it down.

“It’s def­i­nitely an ex­pe­ri­ence when you see peo­ple who don’t know about it. They get this strange look on their face, they stare out at the wa­ter and walk away,” he said. “I sit close by with a fish­ing pole and fish. I eaves­drop on the con­ver­sa­tions.” Some­times, he said, when he over­hears peo­ple say­ing, “How come no­body has ever heard of this?” he’ll in­ter­ject, of­fer­ing that the dis­as­ter hap­pened on Nov. 22, 1963, a day that the news was dom­i­nated by the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy. “It cre­ates a plau­si­bil­ity for them, and they shake their head ‘Maybe.’”

Puz­zled tourists look­ing for the me­mo­rial mu­seum on Staten Is­land and its sup­posed col­lec­tion of wreck­age with “strange suc­tion­cup-shaped marks” some­times won­der into the Snug Har­bor Cul­tural Cen­ter ask­ing for di­rec­tions.

The staff at the nearby Staten Is­land Mu­seum ad­mits it too was puz­zled at first.

“We kind of scratched our heads and said we don’t know where it is and started look­ing fur­ther into it, and re­al­ized it was a hoax,” said spokes­woman Rachel Somma. “Most peo­ple have the feel­ing that it’s not a re­al­ity. It’s a trea­sure hunt for them. It’s fun. That’s what we love about it . ... It’s great that it gets peo­ple out here,” she added.

Me­lanie Gi­u­liano, who pro­duced a mock doc­u­men­tary for the mon­u­ment’s web­site, used her fa­ther in the role of a mar­itime ex­pert and her neigh­bor as an eye­wit­ness. Reginella’s wife’s co-worker served as the nar­ra­tor.

“I thought it was an in­sane idea but I thought it was hi­lar­i­ous,” said the videog­ra­pher and film­maker.

One thing about the pre­pos­ter­ous story is real. There re­ally was a Cor­nelius G. Kolff ferry. It fer­ried pas­sen­gers for 36 years be­fore be­com­ing a sta­tion­ary float­ing dorm for Rik­ers Is­land in­mates. It was sold for scrap in 2003.

ULA ILNYTZKY — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Sept. 29 photo, artist Joseph Reginella poses for a photo on Staten Is­land with the cast bronze faux mon­u­ment ded­i­cated to the mem­ory of the vic­tims of the steam ferry Cor­nelius G. Kolff, It took Reginella six months to ex­e­cute his multi-lay­ered project that in­cludes the faux me­mo­rial, a so­phis­ti­cated web­site com­plete with a doc­u­men­tary, a mocked-up news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and glossy fliers di­rect­ing tourists to a phan­tom Staten Is­land Ferry Dis­as­ter Me­mo­rial Mu­seum with small pieces of the wreck­age on dis­play — some with “strange suc­tion-cup­shaped marks.”

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