- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

BALTIMORE — Tourists and other passengers again were taking water taxis around the Inner Harbor yesterday as divers continued to search for a 6-year-old and a Northern Virginia couple who went missing when a taxi capsized in a sudden storm on Saturday.

“It was a freak accident, and I don’t think it will happen again,” said Tom Bohlin, a 52-year-old visitor from Los Angeles who was waiting for a water taxi at Harbor Place. “It was unfortunate, but these things happen.”

Meanwhile, Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. of the Baltimore Fire Department vowed to continue the search indefinitely.

“We are committed to finding those people out there, and that’s what we will keep doing,” he said.

The divers battled poor visibility and 36-degree water, which allowed them to stay underwater for only 20 minutes at a time.

They were joined yesterday by fireboats equipped with sonar scanners in the search of the 50-foot-deep shipping channel off Fort McHenry where the Seaport Taxi Lady D capsized with 25 persons aboard.

The sonar equipment had located three objects early yesterday on the bottom near where the taxi overturned, but divers determined that one object was debris. The second object drifted away before divers could grab it, said Kevin Cartwright, a fire department spokesman.

The divers had not identified the third object by last night. The recovery operation is scheduled to resume this morning.

The 36-foot pontoon boat overturned Saturday at about 4 p.m. when a fierce thunderstorm swept into the Inner Harbor.

The water taxi was going from Fort McHenry to Fells Point and attempting to escape the unexpected squall when overtaken by 55 mph winds and choppy waves, officials said.

Rescuers pulled 22 persons from the water within minutes of the accident, but a 60-year-old woman died at the scene and three others disappeared in the murky waters. Five persons remained hospitalized yesterday, including 8-year-old Sarah Bentrem of Harrisonburg, Va., and a 30-year-old woman in critical condition.

Sarah’s mother, Elizabeth Bentrem, and her 7-year-old sister, Katie, were treated at the university hospital and released, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Her brother, 6-year-old Daniel, was the missing child, according to the Daily News Record of Harrisonburg. Her father, George, also was on the boat.

Another large family group on the boat suffered a double loss. Corinne Schillings, 26, of Alexandria, and her fiance, 26-year-old Andrew Roccella, took the harbor ride with their parents. The young couple remained missing yesterday and were presumed dead.

The mothers, Karen Schillings of Homewood, Ill., and Eileen Roccella of Vienna, Va., were being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The missing boy and the girl in critical condition are brother and sister. Their parents and another sister also were aboard the boat but avoided serious injury.

Corinne Schillings was a Web master at the Cato Institute in the District. Mr. Roccella was a technical writer at AC Technologies in the Dunn Loring neighborhood of Fairfax County.

David Boaz, executive vice president at the institute, said Miss Schillings worked on the think tank’s Web site.

“She was our Web master, so she created our public face for the world to see every day,” he said. “She was very sweet and hard-working, always looking to improve.”

Miss Schillings’ father, Denny Schillings, is a consultant at Homewood-Flossmoor High in Illinois.

The Seaport Taxis did not operate Sunday or yesterday out of respect for the victims, but other water-taxi services continued to ferry passengers around the Inner Harbor.

Paul Ebaugh, a manager of the seafood restaurant Phillips at Harbor Place, did not think that the accident would have a long-term effect on tourism.

“It’s a tragedy,” he said. “But I don’t think it will keep people from coming back to the Inner Harbor.”

Authorities said the Baltimore area received a severe weather advisory a couple minutes before thick, black clouds rolled over the harbor, a popular tourist spot with restaurants, shops and nearby attractions such as the historic Fort McHenry.

The storm’s character and the timeliness of weather alerts likely are to be key components in the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Investigators are asking whether passengers were instructed to put on life preservers when the weather warning was issued, said Terry Williams, an agency spokesman.

The agency is expected to make a preliminary report on the accident in about a week. Final recommendations, which might include requiring passengers to wear the vests, will take about a year.

Coast Guard regulations require commuter vessels to carry a life vest for each passenger, but wearing them is optional. Passengers on Baltimore’s water taxis rarely wear life vests, and none of the passengers aboard the Lady D was wearing one on Saturday.

Police Maj. Fred Bealefeld said three of those on board were from Puerto Rico, and others were from Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia.

The dead woman was identified as Joanne Pierce, 60, of Cumberland County, N.J., the Daily Journal of Vineland reported yesterday. The newspaper stated that she was on the ferry with her daughter, whose name was not released, and her husband, Thomas Pierce. The daughter reportedly was in a coma and on a respirator at Harbor Hospital.

Four members of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard were on board the water taxi when it overturned, said guard spokeswoman Maj. Millie Rosa. All were rescued, treated at a hospital and released.

They are members of a group of 31 airmen deployed to the Washington area to “maintain airspace security,” including working as air traffic controllers and maintaining communications equipment.

“The airmen were on their day off and were doing a little sightseeing,” Maj. Rosa said.

She said that when the vessel capsized, the four were able to free themselves from the craft and helped perform CPR on two fellow passengers.

Federal authorities also are looking into the boat’s condition and the actions of its two crew members, said Ellen Engleman-Conners, the safety board’s chairwoman. Both crew members survived.

Mrs. Engleman-Conners said an initial inspection of the boat found that the steering system appeared to be intact. The boat was removed from the water for a hull inspection yesterday at a Dundalk boat yard.

She said officials also inspected five other boats operated by the Living Classrooms Foundation, which operates the 11 Seaport Taxis. A spokeswoman for the nonprofit group said the boat’s captain, Frank O. Deppner, has talked to investigators.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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