- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

BALTIMORE — National Transportation Safety Board investigators yesterday focused on emergency training and life-jacket requirements aboard a water taxi that capsized Saturday near the Inner Harbor, killing at least one person and critically injuring two others.

Meanwhile, divers continued searching for three missing passengers who are presumed dead.

NTSB Chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said yesterday she saw similarities to an accident in October that left 10 persons dead when a Staten Island ferry crashed into a pier while docking. The incidents, both involving relatively small crafts, may lead to stricter life-jacket rules for commuter and tour boats, she said.

“I’m not saying it’s a trend, but two in six months is something to look at,” she said. “Passenger safety when we’re crossing the water. … It’s something we’re definitely reviewing.”

Mrs. Conners said the board’s recommendations, which could take up to a year to issue, may involve mandatory donning of life vests for passengers. Coast Guard regulations require commuter vessels to carry a life vest for each passenger, but wearing them is optional.

“No one on the craft had time to get their life preservers on,” said Maj. Frederick H. Bealefeld III of the Baltimore Police Department.

Sightseers and other travelers on Baltimore’s water taxis rarely wear the life vests, which are typically stored under the seats.

Meanwhile, authorities used sonar equipment and cadaver dogs to search the frigid harbor waters for the bodies of a 6-year-old boy, a 26-year-old man and a 26-year-old woman. The three are not related, but two of them had some type of nonfamilial relationship, Maj. Bealefeld said.

Authorities suspended the search at 6 p.m. yesterday because of an approaching storm. Police Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said the search is expected to resume today “because the victims deserve that.”

“We hope to bring their loved ones some kind of closure,” he said.

The Living Classrooms Foundation, which operates the 11 Seaport Taxis, did not run any of the vessels yesterday in deference to the families of the victims, said James Bond, foundation president.

A 60-year-old woman was killed and an 8-year-old girl and a 30-year-old woman were critically injured when the 36-foot pontoon boat flipped over near Fort McHenry. The accident happened around 4 p.m. Saturday during a thunderstorm that blew into the Inner Harbor with 50 mph gusts.

Authorities said the Baltimore area received a severe weather advisory only a couple minutes before thick, black clouds rolled over the Inner Harbor. The role of the storm and weather forecasts will also likely be a key component of the NTSB investigation, officials said.

Police declined to identify any of the passengers, saying that 18 of the 25 persons aboard were from out of town, and they wanted to give people a chance to tell their relatives what happened.

The searchers said yesterday that no one could have survived overnight in the frigid water, which was in the low 40s. They said the victims likely contracted hypothermia within minutes of the accident and sank to the bottom.

The searchers concentrated their hunt near where the boat overturned after a dog trained to sniff out submerged corpses signaled a body there, Chief Goodwin said.

Of the 25 persons aboard, seven remained hospitalized yesterday. The 14 others, including the boat’s captain, Capt. Francis O. Deppner, 74, had been released from hospital care.

Most of passengers were from out of town. Three were National Guard soldiers from Puerto Rico, and most of the others were tourists from Virginia, New Jersey, Illinois and North Carolina.

Chief Goodwin said he believed the water taxis were “absolutely safe” and that the severe storm, which lasted about five minutes, was a freak occurrence.

Some downtown residents who occasionally use the water taxis for recreation or transportation across the harbor said they still had faith in the fleet, though they said they would take additional precautions.

“I would ride it again, but I would still be scared,” said Ryan Neal, 9, who lives in South Baltimore near Fort McHenry and rode his bicycle to the fort to watch the recovery operation.

He said he has taken the water taxi with his grandfather, and they never wore life vests. Ryan said he would wear one now.

“I don’t know how to swim,” he said.

The water taxis have not been involved in a deadly accident in the two decades they have crisscrossed the Inner Harbor. National Park Police officers at Fort McHenry said they could not recall a single drowning on a passenger vessel since a crab-boat captain started taking tourists for rides in the 1940s.

NTSB investigators yesterday interviewed witnesses and passengers at hospitals and their homes, including that of Capt. Deppner, said Tracey Weinberg, a spokeswoman for the Living Classrooms Foundation.

Last night, Capt. Deppner released a written statement, offering his condolences to the victims’ families.

Investigators also planned to retrace the path that the taxi, known as the Seaport Lady D, took through the harbor, and examine records of the vessel and crew, the training procedures of the vessel’s owner-operators and the weather at the time of the accident, the safety board’s Mrs. Conners said.

NTSB investigator Bill Woody said the accident was similar to the 1984 sinking of a paddle-wheel excursion boat on the Tennessee River in Huntsville, Ala., that killed 11 persons. The Coast Guard said that accident was caused by a severe thunderstorm.

In their search, Baltimore police and firefighters and the Coast Guard scoured a two-mile stretch of the harbor from Fort McHenry to the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The agencies scaled back their search before midnight Saturday, but resumed early yesterday, using divers, cadaver dogs, boats and helicopters.

Years of commercial ship traffic and dredging have left the bottom of the 50-foot-deep shipping channel full of craters, forcing divers to crawl on the bottom as they searched for remains.

The loss of life could have been greater had it not been for a team of naval reservists who were training nearby when the water taxi capsized. The rescuers rushed to the scene.

Command Master Chief Melvin Johnson was one of the reservists who saw the boat go over. He said the water taxi attempted to turn as it encountered choppy water churned up by the storm.

“The wind just picked it up and turned it over,” he said. “We didn’t have to tell anybody what needed to be done.”

The reservists threw on life jackets and raced on boats to help. About a dozen passengers managed to climb atop the capsized boat.

By the time they reached the pontoon, it had been blown about two miles into the Patapsco River near the marine terminal in Dundalk. Once reservists got close enough to the site, they lashed their own boat to the overturned craft and pulled 22 persons out of the water.

Petty Officer Jeffrey King, who donned a life jacket and jumped on a boat to help, said passengers were clinging to the overturned taxi, telling reservists of people below. He said reservists used a boat ramp to lift the taxi up.

“Brother, it was like the end of the ‘Titanic’ movie once that thing lifted up,” Petty Officer King said. “I mean those bodies just floated up.”

Lt. Cmdr. Art Eisenstein said he jumped into the water and grabbed a little girl who was unconscious and floating facedown. “Just to hear that she’s still with us is just amazing,” he said yesterday.

The 11 Seaport Taxis and other water taxis that operate in the harbor transport about 700,000 passengers, mostly tourists, every year, Mr. Bond said.

Mr. Bond said the capsized boat was in good condition before the accident.

“She was ready for an inspection on Monday, and in shape the way she should be,” he said.

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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