- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

BALTIMORE — A water taxi with 25 persons aboard capsized yesterday in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor after a violent gust of wind struck the boat, leaving passengers frantically clinging to the overturned pontoon in frigid waters. One passenger died and three others were missing and presumed dead.

Rescuers said they saw up to a dozen passengers climbing across the bottom of the 36-foot pontoon boat after winds gusting up to 50 mph apparently flipped the boat over.

“It was like the twilight zone. It was eerie how the weather just overtook the vessel,” said Command Master Chief Melvin Johnson of the Navy Reserve.

Petty Officer Edward Mendez of the Navy Reserve said he watched violent winds toss the vessel “like a little toy boat getting blown out of control.” He and other reserve officers stationed at a nearby center saw the boat capsize, about 1,000 yards from the shore.

The officers launched a boat, rushed to the scene and pulled about a dozen people from the water, some of them unconscious.

Twenty-two persons were removed from the water, including one woman who died at a nearby hospital. Three persons were missing, and Baltimore Fire Chief William Goodwin said officials did not expect to find any more survivors.

Authorities had announced that two women died, but Mr. Goodwin later revised that to say only one had died. Two persons were in critical condition.

“It’s fortunate there was not a greater loss of life when you consider the force of the storm,” Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley said.

Chief Goodwin remarked on the coincidence that the reservists happened to see the accident.

“Had no one been looking, this tragedy would have been far more tragic than it was,” he said.

At 7 p.m., fire officials turned their mission from rescue to recovery, using helicopters to search for the bodies of the missing.

The 44-degree water was choppy and winds up to 50 mph were blowing through the harbor when the boat capsized at around 4 p.m., said National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Rogowski.

The boat was part of a fleet of 11 Seaport Taxis operated by the Living Classroom Foundation, said the organization’s president, James Bond. The taxis transport about 250,000 people, mostly tourists, every year.

The boat that capsized was carrying 25 persons, including two crew members who survived. It was equipped with life preservers, but passengers are not required to wear them.

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

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

The National Transportation Safety Board said late yesterday that it would investigate the accident.

The Inner Harbor is one of the nation’s oldest seaports. Water taxis ferry thousands of visitors each year to the many points on the Inner Harbor, including Fort McHenry, Fells Point and the world-renowned National Aquarium.

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